Reared in the back-to-back houses of Chorlton-on-Medlock, I mourn the fact that the neighborhood I grew up in is now the giant parking lot of the state-sponsored Royal Infirmary hospital. Fascinated by my favorite guitarist, fellow Manc Johnny Marr’s decision to move to rainy Portland, Oregon “because its weather reminds me of Manchester,” I have thought long and hard about this issue. I miss Manc humor. I miss going to watch Manchester United games at Old Trafford, especially the reserves. I miss Frank Wong’s Chinese fish and chip shop in Salford and the best dance floor in the whole world at the C.I.S. building. Most of my friends left at around the same time I did, so I can’t honestly say I miss them. Least of all do I miss the awful soul-clogging, relentlessly predictable rain that visits itself upon you from the Pennines. Indeed, when it rains here in Chicago, where I live with my wife and youngest kid, it is never as severe as in Manchester, save for the feeling of having a slightly moist, newly formed concrete block pushed up my nose and behind my hazel orbs.
I wasn’t much of a scholar as a kid. The endless cycle of boredom, corporal punishment and rote learning will suck the sap and curiosity out of you quicker than a squirrel gnawing on a chestnut. My mixed-race neighborhood and the kids raised in it were the object of much scorn from my teachers and the police. I spent my time avoiding the remonstrations of my teachers and parents, ran the streets, popped pills, chased skirt, played football, football, football, on the streets and in parks, wore mod gear and dreamed of being a pink James Brown clone. Was this life? Better than sitting at home in front of the telly all night smoking cigarettes, anyway.
In 1968, when those Russian bastards invaded Czechoslavakia, I read and saw about a boy named Jan Palach, a year older than me, who poured petrol over himself in Wenceslas Square as the Soviet tanks approached and then he set himself on fire. Was there anything I would set myself on fire for? I pondered. Indeed, in that year of youth rebellion, self-immolation was all the rage with Palach and various Buddhist monks in South Vietnam and Tibet. Instead of setting myself on fire I wrote a really badass poem. All that bollocks about enjambment and stanzas and the rules of the Italian sonnet must have sunk in against my natural instincts. Lo and fucking behold, my poetry teacher, slumming it from Hale Barns – who had an unfathomable specimen in me – sent the aforesaid poem into a national competition and I won. I felt like George Best for a couple of days until I got yanked into the headmaster’s office and interrogated. Bracewell was his name. “Brass Balls” was what we kids called him.
This interrogation lasted on and off for a week. I was happy to miss a few classes, to be sure, but there was something destroyed in me when he kept saying, “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes. I know! Who actually wrote this?” An ex-drill sergeant, he got right in my face, trembled with rage and tried every which way to intimidate me. Having tried everything else, he would cane me and make me count out every one of a dozen and enjoy my tears. My buttocks still own the sense-memory. I took three dozen one day, and walked home very, very slowly with the sound of my schoolmates’ giggling ringing in my ears.
Three weeks or so into it, my blessed grandmother decided enough was enough, made an appointment and faced down the ogre for me. He quit, but never ceased in his certainty that I owned a criminal heart. At her house she let me have it. Over a poem? Was I insane? Isn’t it hard enough to be poor?
Thus forty-something years later, I write for kicks and money. I’ve put two kids through college at Princeton and Georgetown, but I still smell that fucker Bracewell’s foul peppermint and pipe tobacco breath and wonder if I’ll ever get found out.