He was a man when I was a boy.
We were the same age.
He was taller, faster, stronger, better looking and, perhaps most importantly, cool.
We had been friends in our last year of primary school but now, four years into high school things were different. So different. Same place, different worlds.
I was a divvy in a raincoat.
The Smiths on my wall, fey, winsome, twee, hopelessly romantic and romantically hopeful, I spent my days dreaming and my nights hunched over a turntable making mix-tapes for girls who didn’t exist or who didn’t know that I existed.
Burberry scarf, Lacoste shirt, v-neck wool jumper and the right trainers.
No rain coated lover or puny brother.
He was a casual.
I knew what that was.
I didn’t know what it meant.
This wasn’t about fancy dress or posing, not for him.
Along with a handful of other boys in my year he was all in to a sub-culture that had, at its core, violence where other such youth movements, even the avowedly aggressive skinheads, had it as a by-product; something that happened because the opportunity presented itself and not because it was planned.
I was walking home across the playing fields of the school when I found myself confronted by a boy I didn’t want to be confronted by and a supporting cast of other boys I didn’t want to confront.
They wanted confrontation.
Heaven knows why.
I wasn’t worth confronting.
Something about my acne maybe?
A hand on my shoulder…a not too gentle shove.
I wasn’t interested.
The supporting cast had already formed a circle so there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Then he appeared, pushing his way past two of the players in this ugly show until he was standing by my side. We hadn’t spoken since first year, not really, and at first I wasn’t sure what he was doing here. For a moment I thought he might be about to end what the other boy had started.
Then he did.
But not in the way I feared.
Without saying anything he punched the other boy in the face, knocking him to the ground. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Then he put an arm around my shoulder and walked me away.
The next day at school my goader approached me and my heart stopped for a moment.
He apologised, told me he didn’t know I was friends with my protector and asked me to let him know he was sorry.
That was the last time anyone attempted to lay their hands on me at school again.
I don’t know if I ever said thank you.
Two worlds collided.
It would be a lovely thing to tell you that we became best friends and embarked on myriad adventures but we didn’t. He didn’t want a friend. Not a friend like me. He just had a sense of fairness, he saw a skinny kid with a bad hair cut about to be battered by a slightly less skinny kid with a better hair cut and he did something about it.
A good boy who did bad things.
What does that make him?
There is always a danger in romanticising casuals and casual culture because of the significant role that violence plays in them and it but, regardless of what has happened to that scene in the years since the late seventies and early eighties, it was, at that time, no more than the usual unusual of British working class kids peacocking and having a tear-up. Same as it ever was. Except they arrived at a time of particularly violent hopelessness. The dawning of Thatcherism, mass unemployment, racial tensions, riots, heroin and the rest. Those things are fertile ground for hedonism, for people breaking free and breaking out in whatever way they can.
No doubt the far right, as they had done with skinheads before them, saw the opportunities for manipulating masses of young, downtrodden, broken, young men and took it with the result being that many of the firms became nothing more than fronts for the likes of the NF, BNP and Combat 18 but for every fascist there are equal numbers of young men from bleak backgrounds who just wanted to belong…to something. One of the most unusual, inexplicable, things about casual culture was how many of the people involved didn’t come from those backgrounds. The economic success of the South East of England in particular under Thatcher meant that you could find just as many estate agents as barrow boys fighting side by side on wasteland come Saturday afternoon. That says something about masculinity, or boredom, or alcohol…or something.
Kevin Sampson took this time and these boys as the setting for his debut novel “Awaydays” (1998) and used it to say something about…love, family, isolation, death, despair, class, masculinity and being young.
At its heart the book is a love story. Paul Carty is an educated, artistically gifted, bright young thing from a nice part of town. His mother has passed away and he lives at home with his loving father and doting little sister. The death of his mother has awoken certain “desires” within him…the rage and anger of his loss needs to find an outlet. His Bowie and Lou Reed records aren’t doing it and so he turns his attentions to the local firm; The Pack. One of the boys in the gang is Mark “Elvis” Always, a troubled soul with dreams of a life less ordinary but who doesn’t have the means of Carty or the opportunities.
One of the first people I ever really loved, outside of the members of my family, was my friend Chris. This wasn’t the rush of hormones that washed through me whenever Anna Wallace walked past. No physical desire but a genuine love. A sense that in Chris I had found all the things that were missing in me. After years of being inseparable he just disappeared one day. He stopped calling. He stopped returning calls. No explanation. He was just, gone. Ghosting before ghosting was a thing. It broke my heart. I’m not sure it has ever really mended. Even now, almost 20 years later I occasionally find myself thinking about him and the tears will start to drop.
When I first read “Awaydays” I understood the connection that Elvis felt with Carty. I understood too that for him there was something romantic in it, desire and longing. I couldn’t imagine how much worse I would have felt had my own relationship involved those feelings too. Terrifying. More terrifying was the fact that I had just married someone I “loved” so I should have been able to understand all too well. The fact I didn’t says something I think, maybe it says everything.
Elvis is the gateway to the world that Carty desires. He wants The Pack. He needs The Pack. The Pack is family. The Pack is a vehicle for his rage, an outlet for the hurt and loss that fills him. According to Erikson the sixth stage of our psychosocial development takes place in young adulthood and it is defined by intimacy vs isolation. Success at this stage leads to strong, deep, romantic relationships as well as close relationships with friends and family. Failure is defined by a lack of intimacy and feelings of failure and isolation.
Carty has already successfully negotiated this stage; he loves his sister, he enjoys a close relationship with his father despite his subterfuge around The Pack. He manages to achieve some standing within The Pack itself. Elvis though is alone in a crowd, focused on achieving emotional intimacy only through Carty despite knowing how impossible that is.
Where “Awaydays” differs from other books about casual culture is that it isn’t really about casual culture at all. The nihilism of something like John King’s “Football Factory” trilogy is replaced by something more substantial and, ultimately, more hopeful. It is, really, a love story. The violence, which is brutal and explosive, serves as a metaphor for the repressed emotions felt by Elvis and Carty and, perhaps, has something to say about what happens when, as happened in Thatcher’s Britain, you continually push people to the edges.
Just over a decade after the book was released it made its way onto the big screen as a film written by Sampson himself. After their first meeting Elvis brings Carty back to his flat and there, hanging from a light fitting in the centre of the room is a noose.
“It’s an everyday reminder of the absurdity of life and the absolute certainty of death.”
In the midst of life we are in death.
That room serves as a vision of Heaven and Hell in the film.
It is the room I wanted when I was a boy; achingly cool posters on the wall for bands that nobody else has heard of, gloomy half-lighting and black paint. My own efforts at building such a room would have more closely resembled Adrian Mole with the bell on Noddy’s hat showing through after several coats.
At the same time the room is also a vision of Hell, Elvis lives here alone, his reflection is presented to him in a broken mirror, the darkness is physical and metaphysical…it exists within and without him. It is similar to the rooms that Shelagh Delaney describes in “A Taste of Honey”…
“Like a coffin only not half as comfortable”
“I’m not afraid of the darkness outside, it’s the darkness inside houses I don’t like”
At a time when people are, increasingly, becoming disconnected from one another, despite the fact that it is now easier than ever to stay connected a book like “Awaydays” continues to have something to say. Indeed, it may be that the book has more to say about society today than it did when it was first published. It should be clear to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that young people are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate their way through the conflict between intimacy and isolation. That has seen people rush to the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum and that, in turn, has often exploded into acts of violence that are more worrying than the ones involving The Pack. From James Fields at Charlottesville to the disturbing actions of ANTIFA in Portland it is clear that trouble is brewing.
Trouble loves us, seeks and finds us.
Their is no doubt that “Awaydays” is bleak…darker and more realistic than a dozen other books and films about casual culture…but it does suggest that in family, art, music and love we can find a way out of, and past, the potholes that we occasionally fall into in life.