Apology between Posts #7: Off the Wagon & onto the Horse

It's not very easy to fall off the wagon and land on the horse, but I seem to have an inate ability at doing just that. In fact, I've even become quite good at it.

So my apology this time centres around the truth and that is I cannot type when my head is flat against my keyboard. All that ever produces is hundreds of pages of this:


And that's on a good night.

Still, there is a new post on the horizon, and with a bit of luck, the correct phones being switched off and the bank refusing me money, that should be with you sometime this evening.

Thanks for sticking with me...

All My Best Thoughts & Wishes, Shanddddddddjkkkmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmnccccccccccccccccccccccccccccczzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzmoijjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjç

Tale of a Petty Thief

My step-father was a bizarre person. He was a conman and a heavy drinke, a compulsive gambler and an ex-boxing champ. When I was 6 he left my mother for the arms of a man we only ever knew as 'The Ball Squeezer' and earned his money doing just that: dressing up as a school headmaster and squeezing the balls of his companion for £12 a session. During the remainder of my formative years he was in and out of police cells and courts, charged with everything from robbery to tax evasion, GBH and breach of the peace. Still, this was the man I called “Dad” and even with all his eccentricities and faults he was the most stable thing within miles.

With a nose that had been flattened and busted twelve times, a six inch chib mark running down the left side of his face, and both hands and arms daubed in prison tattoos, he was a young family’s hope... he was all we had. When my mother attempted suicide, or worse survived, it was him that would feed, clothe, and bathe us. But my stepfather was no ordinary man, he was a true eccentric. It was only as I grew older and looked back that I realised something crazy had blown through and coloured my life, and in turn, affected me in many subtle ways. Here is the story of The Man who gave me Wilde.

“God isn’t he ugly!” were my stepfather's words when he saw me for the first time raw and premature in the Royal Free Hospital. “He looks like a little old man!” Of course, I don’t remember him mouthing those words, but that story was repeated to me so often that it stands as my first false memory.

The next memory I have is of him holding me by the ankles and lowering me down into a tomb. “Thats death!” he’d say, peering in over my feet, “Can you see anything?” If he wasn’t holding me down graves or telling me hideous bedtime stories about ghouls, perverts, decapitations or diseases, he’d be inside doing the ironing in a dress. In summer he would spend his days sitting out on the dustbin in the front yard reading Orwell or Darwin and slurping away at huge cups of sugary tea. Every Sunday at 3 pm he would set a table up on the pavement and sit there alone wolfing down a full Sunday roast. More than once he was accused of indecent exposure. He was such a spectacle that the Estate Agents paid him to stay inside whilst they were around taking photo’s. It was the 1980’s and property prices in Fulham had shot through the roof. The last thing Foxtons wanted was a bald, semi-dressed gay man,  with an exposed ballbag being the backdrop to 'an exquisite victorian maisonette.'

Besides many other things my step-father was also a fitness fanatic. More than any other man I have ever known he took an obsessive interest in his body, and the shape and contours of his muscles. Standing in front of the curtainless front windows he’d be lifting weights, squeezing his Bull Worker or doing star jumps. Whilst walking us to school he’d often drop to the floor and begin doing pressups. “One... Two... THREE..” we’d hear him blow. Passing under scaffold he’d invariably leap up and do 10 or 15 lift-ups, the veins in his neck pulsating and his face looking like it was about to explode. “I just love exercise,” he’d declare, “nothing feels better than the pain of a good work-out!”

My stepfather was also a ‘gleamer’. That meant he gleamed from the streets, picking up and dragging home anything which could be used. Many an evening and weekend he’d drag me along to help haul an old carpet or mattress back home. As he rummaged through skips I would constantly wander off, petrified that a school friend may pass and see me. But it was not just furnitures that he gleamed, it was gold and money too. Convinced he was in possession of magical powers he would dowse city maps with a ring on the end of a string, believing it would guide him to the city’s treasures. “Gold... gollld.. golllllld” he would repeat spookily with his eyes half closed as if in some kind of weird trance. Walking down the street he would suddenly do a U-turn and without a word and march derangedly back the direction we had just come from: “I’ve got that feeling!” he’d say “my toes are all tingling... I'm gonna find something!” And he did, he found a lot of stuff, but not because he was gifted or had any magical powers, but because he walked with his nose in the gutter seven hours a day, everyday. If a wallet or a note was dropped in West London, the chances are it would be him that would find it. He never saw the days he returned home empty-handed. But we did, and what's more, we felt them.

When my mother finally disappeared from the house for good we were left to his sole trust. Working nights in Soho he had no option but to lock us in the house from school and then go out and pray we’d still be there when he returned. Mostly we were, but on odd occasions he’d have to come and collect my brother, sister and I from the police cells. Finding a note stuck on the door he’d turn up at the station at 1am steaming drunk. Swaying and incoherent they’d chuck him in the cell too and then we’d all wait until he sobered up or until a neighbour arrived and acted as guardian. It was here that the Social Services were first introduced to the family. Initially my step-father despised them, but when he realised he was stable enough to keep us, yet unstable enough to receive their free Christmas and Easter hampers, he used them as he used everyone: to procure benefits or money to fund his gambling, social and drinking habits.

Though a heavy drinker (11 pints a night) my step-father was not an alcoholic. Ok, medically, statistically and practically he was, but in the sense that he had to drink, needed to to exist, no... he was not of that ilk. And unlike my mothers drinking his did not darken a generation or lead to multiple forms of abuse. My Stepfather was a happy drunk and more than anything he drunk to work.... he drunk 'Dutch courage”. And God, doing what he did he needed courage - anyone would. He was a con working the streets of Central London. That's how he put the bread on the table. These cons would involve multiple schemes and ploys, all designed to turn a tenner into a fifty or a pint into a wallet full of US dollars. And for every hustle there was a name:

The Trust Game: this involved working in pairs to befriend a tourist, get him drunk, and finally walk out the bar with his wallet full of cash. After a few drinks, one of the two men would demand the tourist’s wallet in a test of his “trust”. Taking the wallet he would leave the bar only to return seconds later celebrating the fact that he could have disappeared but didn’t. He would then have the punter count his cash and testify that it was all still there. Having had the wallet and now sure the client was worth the drinks they were supplying him they’d repeat the “trust” process a couple of times. Finally whoever was acting as ‘the runner’ would disappear with the wallet and not return. The other (the sitter) would wait with the punter until the police came and give a statement of what happened,  claiming that he too had only just met the thief.

Swicking: Pschological trick to get change of a larger note when paying with a smaller one. This would involve buying a round of drinks and offering up a £50 in payment. Every time the barman goes to fetch the order my stepfather would suddenly ask for something else, ALWAYS with the £50 held up like a name card. When convinced the barman has registered the fifty note, it would then be swapped (swicked) for a tenner. More often than not change would be given for the fifty. My stepfather was infamous for this little scam and known and barred from all but three West End bars for it.

Tipping: Loitering around betting shops pretending to have insider knowledge on a trainer/horse. My step father would choose the horse most likely to lose, but convince a punter that he had inside info and the horse had been trained up for the race. He would find someone willing to wager £20 on it and would take their money but only wager a bet for £2. On the carbon copy receipt he'd add a nought and  give it to the punter. As the race started he would then sneak out the betting shop just in case the horse romped home... which happened many times.

Pressure Dealing: Selling bum gear to drug users. Either hash that was made from ingredients at home or amphetamine that was baking powder, my father would set up a small drug deal. Supplying a little genuine stuff as a taster he’d conclude the deal with his home made recipes. On the point of handover he’d suddenly scream “Fuck, there’s the police!!! Stash that and get away!!” By the time the buyer had a chance to eye his wrap it was too late. Unfortunately my stepfather came unstuck twice with this hustle. The first time it nearly cost him his life and the second time his freedom.

Rolling: Posing as a homosexual, and then robbing the client either before or during the act. (Sometimes it was old-fashioned Sex for Money with no ‘rolling’ involved.)

Picking: Classic game of trying to remove jewelery or wallets without being detected.

Collecting: Travelling the subway and unblocking the ‘returned coins’ slot of vending machines which had been blocked days in advance.

These cons would start off at 3pm and go on until last orders were called. There was a little team of seven or eight and they all worked together. At the end of the night they’d meet up and pool, then divide the earnings. My real father was also a part of this little crowd, but because of his heroin problem he was not much liked and even less trusted. In absence of being arrested my step dad would fall in the front door and crawl the stairs between midnight and 1am. Reeking of beer and with sweet and sour sauce dripping from his chin he’d wake us up relating the stories of how he had got the money and/or jewellery that was sprawled out on the floor. I enjoyed these tales and literally hung off his every word and description. But mostly I enjoyed hearing about the fights... how my stepfather had fought himself free or knocked justice into one of the crooked crooks. He once told me that he had lifted a man off his feet with an uppercut and then hit him 21 times before he came back down!

But although often involved in altercations he was not domestically violent and only beat me on a handful of occasions and my mother a little more. More than his “love” & “hate” tattooed fists, it was his voice that instilled fear into us. It was the same voice I had heard when he screamed at Mr Evans and then threatened to pull away the jack from under the car if he didn’t remove himself and take the punches that were banked for him. He had a very definite way to let people know that anger had curled his hand into a fist and if they didn’t relent would soon be involuntarily punching away at their face. In every way my stepfather was full of confidence and very often this manifested itself in very weird ways.

With 40 odd years of unquestioned authority behind him he seemed to have acquired a very peculiar and particular notion of self image. He was extremely vain, but not the type of vanity where he was in the least concerned with public opinion. His was a different kind of self-consciousness, a perverse vanity that played to his fantasy of who and what he was. With absolutely no fashion conscience and solely interested in a garments comfort or practicality he would adapt and wear them to his own needs and desires. But not in any sane way. Rather he would tear the arms of his shirt as he queued to buy it, or roll up his trouser legs to the knee. He’d pull the silk lining out of expensive jackets because it made them “too small and constrictive”. In summer he’d cut the toes out his shoes and walk about with his thick yellow feet poking out the top. And it wasn’t just his clothes he’d do that to. I remember being sent to school in a pair of football boots with the plastic studs sawn off: “They’ll do...” he said “No-one will ever know”. Of course the world knew. We were eight year old kids with heads full of football results and the latest trainers. These weren’t even Adidas football boots, but some dodgy German rip-off with about eighteen stripes! And my excuse: “Oh there just to play football in!” didn’t cut the ice, because with no grip I could barely walk without falling, skidding or sliding like a new born deer. That they were also 3 sizes too big and shaped like pre-EU banana’s just added to the misery. I think it was the only day of my youth that I actually sat still.

But my stepfather was not a mean man, and though on multiple occasions I died with embarrassment in his presence, I would in time learn to respect him and even admire him for the way he was and what he indirectly passed on to me. He was crazy, but he was not insane and his eccentricities were not unhealthy ones. He just did not come from a normal mould and had survived, formed and shaped himself.

At the same time he was the hardest, cleverest most stupid man I had ever known. He read Darwin but got it all wrong.... attributed quotes to Conan Doyle when they were from Lewis Carrol. He would surmise and give political solutions to problems after reading just half a paragraph on a subject, and in his life he would pass himself off as a gangster, writer, poet, artist, sociologist, anthropologist, antique dealer, chef, lawyer and professor. In truth he was a little of all those things without ever genuinely being either one. He was a composite of many great parts, but he was not a great man. He was a petty thief and called upon certain characteristics or knowledge in an attempt to wheedle a few quid out of someone’s pocket. He learnt that a literary bore will be more likely to buy you a drink if you can at least listen to his ramblings and stay awake... that another criminal will help you out a tight spot if you show you “know the game.” Instead all these great parts merged and resulted in a man walking around the streets pushing a shopping trolley full of scrap metal. In the summer he done this in his pants, in winter donning a womans fur coat. But it was all those parts that were to fire me into action.... that would push me on the hunt for knowledge myself.

My natural reverence and competition to my father (step), my desire/need to better him, prove his arguments wrong, would lead me into libraries, bookshops and places of learning. In that sense he has only ever had an influence on my intellectual life, and is the only person from my upbringing without the slightest connection to my drug life.

If I started reading Oscar Wilde at 13 it was to understand what it was he was chortling away to. If I then moved on to Orwell and then Dostoevsky it was to argue these books out with him. When I got into politics it was just to outsmart him, to have him back down in the face of real knowledge... to collapse at the realisation of his own shortcomings. Of course he never did... he never felt inferior to anyone. In 1997 he defended himself in West London’s Magistrates Court against attempted robbery charges and stood rattling in front of the judge as though he were a top flight lawyer. He pranced and strutted around the courtroom with all the gestes, pauses and smiles... pulling up thousands of contradictions in the prosecutors claims. And he’d probably have gotten off with it, had he not done it all bare chested and with a neck strung with thick gold chains. But that was him. He felt superior inside... and not just superior, more clever... smarter. He could not be taught, he could not be lectured. He knew it all and more and in no way could he be drank under the table.

With this realisation I no longer tried to bring him down. Instead I sat in silence as he unleashed mouthfuls of ignorance, admiring his prose yet inwardly snorting and smirking at the ludicrous things he was saying. And it was there that I realised he did have one great ability and one that I would never have: he had the ability to sound like he knew what he was talking about... to have you believe that he was a true authority on his subject. In that sense he was a genius and it is probably the reason he was such a successful conman: As for impressing him I never did. The closest I got was when I returned from a weeks school holiday and told him I had fallen in love with another boy. And for 5 minutes he was impressed and for a little less he even believed that maybe, after all, I really was his son.

Now, 2010, he is in his 67th year. He’s stopped hustling the streets and now does it on ebay with first edition books and antiques. But these days I have very little to do with him. Since my best friend Ewan died in his house 10 years ago we lost contact and never really regained it. Soon after he moved out as he felt ‘The Spirit of Death’ was somehow then a part of the place. He also threw me out as a possible prevention against having to find me like that next. He is completely aware of and comfortable with my heroin addiction yet he is very distanced from it. He sees that as too much a reminder of my mother and more, my real father and his one time friend. In a sense I am his living nightmare, a constant reminder of his impotence where women are concerned, a definite confirmation of his lack of real masculinity.

Of the three kids my mother doesn’t attribute any 100% to him. She says my sister probably is his (or Scotch Peter’s) and my brother, well... he’s just a mystery. It was reported that at his birth she asked “What colour is he?” But my stepfather can play blind to these queries and if he doesn't look too deeply he has two certain offspring's. But with me it’s different. Since the age of 8 it was out and in the open that I was not “his” and so looking at me he sees all that I am not. But the truth is I am more him than any of my siblings... I have more of him in me than he’ll ever know. His influence has been great and positive and pushing, but it has never been daunting or dark. I only ever celebrate him and take pride in those traits that he has passed onto me. He’s another hero, and along with two dead drunks is the third poet in my life. Without him I would have no Wilde, no Orwell, Steinbeck or Dostoevsky. Without his stories and descriptions I would surely never have taken a love for words and literature or celebrated all the things that were not worth celebrating. And without that, and without the words I use to recall them, I’d have only heroin and an early death to keep me amused. And if that were the future then it would be so very dismally bleak. No, he may not be my biological father but the fact remains and is indisputable: without him I’d never have been born.

My Love, Thoughts & Wishes to All

Shane. X