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'Higher education comes at exactly the right time: in the twilight of your teens, you're just starting to coagulate as a human being, to pull away from parental influence and find your own feet. What better than three years in which to explore the inner you, establish a feasible worldview, and maybe get on Blockbusters.'
After an idyllic provincial 1970s childhood, the 1980s took Andrew Collins to London, art school and the classic student experience. Crimping his hair, casting aside his socks and sporting fingerless gloves, he became Andy Kollins: purveyor of awful poetry; disciple of moany music, and wannabe political activist. What follows is a universal tale of trainee hedonism, girl trouble, wasted grants and begging letters to parents.
A synth-soundtracked rite of passage that's often painfully funny, it traces one teenager's metamorphosis from sheltered suburban innocent to semi-mature metropolitan male through the pretensions and confusions of trying to stand alone for the first time in your own kung fu pumps in a big bad city.
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The Long Way
ROCKERS ARE GETTING COOL FEET
If you want to look like a rock star this summer, fellas, throw your socks away. Most of Duran Duran seem to favour the sockless look. Even Echo and the Bunnymen's moody Ian McCulloch has chucked away his socks. I was so impressed that I tried it over the weekend and all I can say is that it has to be the most uncomfortable fashion yet invented!
John Blake's Bizarre column, The Sun, 28 July 1983
'Dave Griffiths doesn't go out looking like that!' Mum snipes, slamming the cutlery drawer to underline her point.
We're having one of our free and frank exchanges of views, becoming ever more frequent as my need for fumbled self-expression increases. I'm on my way out to collect Sally for tonight's big party. Why does she always wait until I'm on my way out to challenge me? Why do all mums do that? In the old house at Winsford Way you could get from the stairs to the front door without passing the kitchen ('I'm off out, won't be late, bye!' slam). Not at Kestrel Close. The kitchen's between the stairs and the door, like a sentry box.
'I don't want to look like Dave Griffiths,' I protest. Dave Griffiths is my ultra-straight friend who is leaving sixth form not for university but the RAF. Where's Dad when you need him to arbitrate? He usually dries as she washes.
'I sometimes wish you were Dave Griffiths,' she shouts. Ah good, she's strayed into fantasy. I give her an eye-rolling look of derision and reach for the door handle. The argument is over. I have won the battle, and so, in her mind, has Mum.
'Won't be late, bye!' slam.
I was, to be fair to Mum, beginning to put my head above the parapet in fashion terms that year. I wore my hair increasingly blow-dried and lacquered, in deference to Ian McCulloch and Robert Smith and other pop peacocks whose aromatic, dark music I'd fallen in love with on Switch or The Tube. Boots on the Market Square did brisk business with their gender-unspecific green hair gel that year. Black pumps were de rigueur, even when it got too chilly to wear them sensibly sans chausette. October was the reluctant start of the sock season, by which time I'd be off.
There is something about me in plentiful Truprint photos from the time that suggests I am not content merely to be part of a group that stands out from the crowd. Either my jeans are rolled higher than everybody else's, or I am wearing my hair spikier, or the sleeves have been more roughly hacked from my T-shirt for that Bono soldier-of-fortune effect. And no one else seems to be wearing fingerless gloves.
You couldn't play the drums in fingerless gloves, more's the pity. The local band I drummed for and gigged with had risen from the ashes of a previous band, Absolute Heroes. We were called, with no hint of embarrassment, Sketch For Dawn, after a Durutti Column track that bassist Craig and I particularly loved. All four of us in the band backcombed our hair to varying degrees, as did the knot of kids who came to see us play at the Black Lion in town. In fact, only Dave Griffiths stayed completely square, as if he were perhaps in the pay of my mum.
It was a Northampton thing. Provincial, Middle English, suburban, it was fertile soil for the sombre flowering of a generation too young to have experienced punk first-hand and too far away from the nearest city to affect New Romanticism. A tartan cape and jodhpur ensemble would have got you kicked in down town, and perhaps rightly so. It was all right for the actual New Romantics - they lived in London and got taxis. Their look and lifestyle was never going to translate to Northampton. But second-hand overcoats, check shirts and cheap hair gel? Bring them on.
You needed nothing much to do and nowhere much to go in order to get a fix on this moody new music's A-level-friendly ennui. Minor chords and wailing vocals, it was a custom-made soundtrack for our wannabe disaffected, misunderstood years. The movement's Beatles and Stones, The Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen, were in the process of going awkwardly overground in 1983 - fixtures suddenly of Top of the Pops and Smash Hits — but their sartorial influence was, it seems, much more heavily felt outside London. Macs, multiple T-shirts and heavy fringes were anything but the uniform of an ostracised cult in Northampton. They were everywhere, or seemed to be. Though big hair and outdoor slippers were not welcome at the town's only notable nightclub, Cinderellas, we successfully colonised select pubs and newly minted wine bars and kept our overcoats on, however hot it got.
Cinderellas - or Cinderella Rockefellers, to use its full, disagreeably aspirational title - remained off-limits. Until, that is, it opened its doors to the great unsocked by advertising its first ever Alternative Night. This meant no door policy, and Northampton's raincoat brigade jumped at the chance actually to see inside the place. They were playing 'Mad World' by Tears For Fears — an approved record — as we pushed through about the third set of silver-laminated double-doors, but the mythical Cinderellas was no better than a hotel disco really. And no bigger either — once you'd taken into account the ubiquitous mirrored surfaces. It was not a wild success. The dance floor was too keen and obvious and needy, with its pulsing floor and flashing lights and remained forbiddingly empty for much of the night. On reflection, we preferred the dour ambience of the Masonic Hall.
Northampton's more conservative soul boys, who were legion, might have considered us avant garde — actually, poofy's more accurate — but despite an isolated attack on Richie Ford at a house party after a Dentist Chair gig, violence rarely broke out. If you wore a tie you were, in our parlance, a 'rugby player': you went to Cinderellas and lived out the unfolding Eighties dream of chrome and money; if you wore the ripped-off hem of a T-shirt wrapped round your wrist as a kind of bangle-cum-bandage, you went to a house party in one of the terraced streets near the Racecourse and feigned existential doom. Nobody got hurt.
One member of our big-haired circle, John Lewis, had made a premature break for it at Weston Favell. Mistaking the relative laissez faire of sixth form for real freedom, he turned up to school one morning with his hair intricately beaded into plaits, like some Vivienne Westwood clone out of The Face. He looked a bit silly — he looked bloody stupid - but the rest of us would have defended to the death his right to do so. He was promptly sent home by Mr Cole to reconsider his position.
I now realise that what we were doing that summer was pretending to be students. Which, apart from Squadron Leader Griffiths, is what most of us were about to be. If by throwing away our socks we were trying to look like rock stars, then it was the type of rock star who looked like a student! Why? Because student life, with all its imagined freedoms and possibilities and subsidy, is as aspirational to fifth- and sixth-formers as Cinderellas is to rugby players. It meant leaving home, wearing second-hand clothes and attempting to become an interesting but sensitive individual - another Eighties dream for some of us.
The Metro is neatly parked outside and Sally and I quietly decorate the dark shallows of the Masonic Hall. I don't know if it's the weight of expectation, but tonight it's just not working. Too many interchangeable sixth-form parties have been held here, each with the same, almost Masonic codes and practices, the same cliques and sarcastic catchphrases, the same dash for the dance floor when 'our' music comes on. The evening seems destined to be fogged with the same mood of anticlimax as the informal buffet. Celebration brought down with the anxiety of major change.
A tyre exploded in Bert Tilsley's face on Coronation Street tonight. He might die. But nobody's talking about it — we're too cool for that. The talk is of Ian McCulloch on Top of the Pops and Richie Ford getting beaten up for trying to look a bit like Ian McCulloch. I might have been at that ill-fated house party if me and Sally hadn't been babysitting my sister. I might have had my head kicked in. I lean towards Sally as 'Billie Jean' starts to fade out.
'You OK? Let me know when you want to make a move,' I ask in the quiet voice reserved for talking to your girlfriend amid a larger group.
Of late, it's increasingly me who wants to make a move, and Sally who wants to stay.
The sixth form marked the start of what we view as 'serious relationships' — Craig went out with Jo, I went out with Jo, Neil went out with Liz, Mick went out with Lynsey, Craig went out with Lynsey, Craig went out with Jo's sister, I went out with Jo's sister, Pete always looked like he'd go out with Het but never actually did. We've grown used to couples becoming the prime unit within our gang. That's cool, as long as they don't interfere with our catchphrases. We drink cider or Fosters or Britvic for the drivers and dance to whatever approved records the DJ has.
Tonight's bash is called the Hello Goodbye Party, in that it sees off one year of maroon blazers and welcomes another. I'm ready to say goodbye. Sally wants to say hello for a bit longer.
Our conversation is curtailed when we hear the frenetic opening guitar on 'The Back of Love'. Our siren call, we all rise reflexively and head to the floor for the allotted three minutes of elbows-out raincoat dancing. It ends with that sustained chord. We repair to the edges of the hall. It's back to Shalamar.
I return to pretending I'm having a good time and manage to sustain it for another half-hour before subtly renewing my theme.
'Ready to go?'
My Great Escape mood is hardly alleviated by the fact that it seems I'm the only one who's spotted a couple of blokes from the gang who reportedly jumped Richie. They're not in the sixth form, nor are they about to be (it is, after all, for poofs), but they got in to the party somehow, skulking in their white shirts and Sta-Prest trousers. My desire to go is heightened.
'Why do you want to go so early?' Sally looks at me slightly pityingly. 'It's your party.'
I return to my previous tactic, made a little more nervous by the scent of imminent violence.
Eventually Sally will give in and I'll drive us both home 'the long way' in Mum's Metro - putting the clock back to nought to conceal the extra miles. A detour for snatched, self-educating sex, seats reclined on an unlit lane near Billing Aquadrome in sniffing distance of the sewage farm. Meanwhile, until then, the party grinds informally on, unapproved records booming out in the main hall as we suck our drinks to make them last.
'Shall we go?'
While today is supposed to be the first day of the rest of my life, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of Sally's. She turns sixteen. Which means that after seven months of going out — four of those taking 'the long way' — she'll be legal. She's been a tender but mature fifteen, so mature in fact that we never really considered what we were doing on a fairly regular basis as illegal. I was simply her biggest thrill, and she was mine.
We first got off with each other at the fag end of a house party at the end of 1982. I had no reason to believe that the girl underneath me on the floor of Alan's flat would turn out to be my first proper girlfriend. Sally seemed, on the face of it, to be like the others: a doll-eyed, big-skirted schoolgirl with whom I could wetly snog and fitfully grope until we tired of writing each other's initials on our exercise books. And our relationship was textbook term-time training-bra love, the kind I'd grown to know. Barely thought through, it was in truth more that we had the right look and listened to the same music than any real kismet. But the weeks went by. And the months. Sally and I started marking anniversaries. It was a sweet-natured, well-meant, mutually rewarding, highly decorative relationship, the first for both of us with any staying power, and certainly our first with anything even approaching sex.
Trading Young Ones catchphrases and Bauhaus lyrics like a couple of boys and sharing a penchant for big hair and espadrilles and latterly, each other's bones, Sally and I were working out fine; 1983 had our name on it. We were a foundation course in young love.
Then comfort set in. Comfort and conformity. I hadn't expected staying in to become so attractive so soon in my life, having spent most of puberty trying to get out, but romantic security — and a warm body on tap — tend to keep you indoors. This is the great irony of teenage love: when you're single you go out in order to find somebody to go out with and then, when you have, you stay in with them.
So take away the homework, the curfew and the fact that sex could only last as long as we dared and it was like a marriage.
SCENES FROM A PRETEND MARRIAGE (1)
We're in the living room, Winsford Way. January. My parents are having a noisy, grown-up house party to celebrate Mum's fortieth and the fact that they've put the house up for sale. Sally and I are invited: the token young people. I'm not sure it's such a great idea but we have to 'come out' as a couple at some stage. The living room is full of friends, neighbours, uncles, aunties and people from Dad's work getting merry on snowballs, eating cocktail sausages and jiving to old rock 'n'roll records. Me and Sally sit in the corner of the extension, draped over each other just enough to provide comfort without raising eyebrows. Sally is shy by nature and barely even knows me, let alone my parents or their hot-faced friends and, as such, her opportunity to shine in public as My Girlfriend is limited to looking pretty. She does look pretty though in voluminous skirt and vest top and her doll's face suits demure. Chris from up the road staggers past and, nodding to me, indicates the buffet.
'That's your fucking breakfast!' he slurs.
We laugh. I've never heard any of Mum and Dad's friends say the f-word before.
Gesturing to her half-empty glass of Bacardi and Coke, I ask Sally if she wants a top-up.
'Yes please. Don't be too long though.'
I undrape myself and take our empty glasses into the kitchen, avoiding Dad and Chris's wife Carol giving it the full rock around the clock.
The kitchen is rammed with party guests. I squeeze through to get to the table, laden with drinks. As I pour out two more Bacardis, I am accosted by a group of women.
Auntie Pat says, 'Your girlfriend's very pretty.'
'So pretty,' concurs Auntie Sue.
Neither of these women is actually my auntie, just old friends of Mum.
'Thanks,' I say, not sure how else to react.
'Where does she go?' asks Denise from next door.
'The girls' school.'
'Well, she's really pretty,' says Auntie Pat, adding, with a twinkle in her eye, 'well done.'
They laugh, not unkindly.
I feel oddly buoyed, simply by the fact that drunk adults, who know next to nothing about me, think it's a good idea. It's official then.
SCENES FROM A PRETEND MARRIAGE (2)
March. Sally and I are listening to a tape of Echo & the Bunnymen that I've recorded off the telly - a live gig at Sefton Park in Liverpool. We're in my room. She's wearing my lumberjack shirt. We long-haul snog and gently paw at each other with the anglepoise lamp aimed at the wall for mood lighting. It is all very innocent. Mum and Dad are downstairs watching Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. I discover through the miracle of touch that Sally, though fully dressed, is not wearing a bra. She always wears a bra. I stop and pull back to look at her. The other person is often strangely absent during full-on teen snogging.
'I thought you'd like it,' she says.
She has been waiting all evening for me to find out and enjoys her moment of triumph.
'It's a late birthday present.'
We stare at each other.
'I love you.'
'I love you too.'
This is the first time we have said it. It makes us feel all warm and special. It suddenly feels like we've made a pact. No going back. Andy and Sally against the world. AC4SP 4EVER. It makes us feel like we always thought it would feel when the moment came. Perhaps we were encouraged by Russell Grant's horoscope page in the Chronicle & Echo. Love, he told us, was in store for both Pisces (Andy) and Leo (Sally). Hers read, 'A lion in love is a happy one.' It's ten weeks and three days.
SCENES FROM A PRETEND MARRIAGE (3)
We're in Sally's living room. It's August. The beginning of the end of summer with the start of college breathing down our necks. Sally's back from her holiday in the Isle of Wight with her friend Charlotte today. I've been away too, with my family to Jersey, where I picked up a deep tan and some cockney catchphrases from a taxi driver called Dave who we met at the hotel. Sally's freckles have spread in the south coast sun - she looks more bohemian. We're exchanging presents. Love tokens.
Removing a bottle wrapped in crepe paper from the plastic bag, she says, 'I know what this is ...'
It's a bottle of Malibu. Safe bet. She gives me a kiss.
'Thanks. This is for you.'
I unwrap something worryingly small and saucer-shaped. It's a small craft-shop ceramic saucer with a fish design.
'Wow,' I say, just able to mask my underwhelmed indifference.
'Thanks, it's really sweet.'
I'm not sure what to do with it.
'You could put your change in it.'
We cuddle up on the sofa, aware that Sally's mum is hovering in the background, folding clothes. We haven't seen each other for a grand total of seventeen days, the longest we've been apart in eight months of going out.
She says, 'You smell different.'
'Do I? Well you sound different.'
I sound like Dave. Sally sounds a bit like Charlotte. She smells like the world outside.
By October it was over. At a new seat of learning, enjoying new friends and new ways, Sally suddenly felt more of a schoolgirl. But we'd truly lost our shine while she was in Ryde and I was in St Helier. The magic faded as fast as a British summer. When hanging out at the right places, looking a certain way and dancing to appropriate records is the beating heart of your very existence, distraction is likely. When life is essentially shallow and cosmetic and responsibility-free, changing partners is like changing hair colour. That Sally and I lasted so long is the amazing thing. Perhaps because we had exchanged the prized property of our mutual virginity we felt a nagging guilt about going our separate ways.
While we both knew it was over, it takes one person to act - to unilaterally push the detonator - and if I'm honest with myself, Sally wanted out more than me. At the beginning of our relationship I had been quite the catch - an older, wiser, spiky-haired drummer with a Mini Metro. What more could a Northampton girl want? While I was initially more wary, expecting the usual, I soon took the relationship to heart. Now I wanted to stay at home and play at couples in a safe domestic vacuum, unthreatened by the maelstrom of hormones 'out there' — particularly if 'in here' involved sex education. But as I've since learnt, what women want is not as simple as that. Sally, having achieved her initial goal, increasingly wanted to go out. First to show us off, and then, once we'd shown ourselves off, to tear off with her friend Rachel dressed like twins in search of ... in search of, I'm not sure what: the joy and freedom of being sixteen, I suppose. She wanted to have her cake and eat it and I became, even if only in my own eyes, that loathed object: the proprietorial husband.
'Sometimes I think you should be out at hipfreakntrendy parties with Rachel, not sitting in watching telly with me,' I explain, tugging at the tail of her checked shirt — my checked shirt actually — hoping for a denial. She says nothing.
Our latest Little Talk is not going well. Hipfreakntrendy is our catch-all term for the life Sally isn't leading, by the way. The life 'out there'. A life less ordinary. For all our crazy hair and exposed rock-star ankles, we spend an awful lot of time sitting in and watching telly. And when we do go out, we're driving to parties in Mum's Metro, not drinking and leaving early while other people roll in the coat room. I'm ashamed to admit it suits me, but not her.
'I know you feel you're missing out on a lot of ... stuff.'
'I didn't say that,' she says, after an age.
'It's true though,' I counter, because it is.
More silence. Her perfect face as still as a doll's.
'If you want to finish it just tell me.' Urgency in my voice now — a rare visitor.
She does, but then there would be no more lifts and even girls in the prime of their life can get used to stuff after ten months.
The Little Talks, which are talks for me and don't-talks for Sally, are becoming more frequent. In the early stages of our relationship, Rachel coveted Sally's prize — not me specifically, but a boyfriend in a band. Now she covets Rachel's freedom. The freedom to eye people up from under your fringe. The freedom to get falling-over drunk and not even know whose house it is. The freedom to get off with other people - taller boys, boys with jobs.
I honourably put us out of our misery.
'I think it would be better for you if we finished it.'
Silence. Doll face.
After a brief honeymoon period of singledom, Sally went out with a tall bloke who had a job. Whether he was her biggest sixteen-year-old thrill I neither knew nor cared by Christmas.
Sally and I went out for 287 days. The long way.