The Boy Out of Cheltenham

Geoff Dyer

Homes

11 Fairfield Walk. My parents took considerable pride in the fact that we lived in an end-terrace house, and so were effectively semi-detached. Two bedrooms. A front garden, of which my dominant memory – because there is a colour transparency – is playing in a red paddling pool. One day every year, ants would appear from the outside toilet (we also had an indoor one). At the back of the houses was a lane where the kids from the Walk and the other Fairfields (Avenue, Road) played.

21 Woodlands Rd. Properly semi-detached, three bedrooms. We moved there when I was 12, in 1970. Large garden, where we played football and badminton. Sold in 2012 (see Death). (See Sex.)

Schools

3Naunton Park (and adjacent Recreation Park) Infants and Juniors (1963–1969). My mum worked here as a dinner lady, both while I was a pupil and afterwards, when I went to the grammar school. Passing the 11-plus and going to the grammar marked a total shift in my social life; within months, not through any kind of snobbery, merely by force of circumstance, I gradually stopped seeing any of the boys who failed the 11-plus and stayed on at Naunton Park Seniors.

4Cheltenham Grammar School (1969–1976). For the first term I travelled there by the bus. From January 1970, after I had received my first racing bike (a Dawes Red Feather) as a Christmas present, I cycled every day. First from Fairfield Walk, then from Woodlands Road, taking either Route 1 or 2 on the outward leg and always returning by Route 2 (to avoid the hills of 1).

Relatives

5Rhoda and Daryl. My mum’s half-sister and her husband who had one daughter, Tina. They were the relatives I was closest to and spent most time with.

6Auntie Dink. My dad’s sister and her husband Uncle Eric, who killed himself (see Death).

7Auntie Joan, another of my dad’s sisters. Lived here in the council house where they had all grown up. At the time of writing, the sole survivor of my dad’s brothers and sisters.

7Harry and Lena (another of my dad’s sisters) who lived a few doors down from Joan, won half a million quid on the football pools and bought the council house for Joan during the big Thatcher sell-off.

8Uncle Jim (my dad’s brother) and his wife, Peg.

Friends

1Almost every house along Fairfield Walk had kids my age, so I had lots of friends. Keith Williams, Graham Gardner, Dragon Yulkoviz (spell?) of Polish descent.

9My friend Gary Hunt lived here, on Naunton Crescent, with his brother Glenn. Their grandfather lived a couple of doors down from them and would drop his trousers to show us...his shrapnel wounds from the First World War. Gary did not pass the 11-plus.

10Mark Harwood. Lived in a large decrepit house on Old Bath Road (number forgotten). His father (who Mark called ‘Pops’) was a carpenter and had the air of an eccentric inventor. His mum worked in the clothes shop where I had one of my Saturday jobs (see Employment). Mark also failed the 11-plus.

11Nicholas Thomas, my deeply duplicitous friend from grammar school, lived on Sandy Lane. I look back fondly on the day he knocked his teeth out playing football at school. His father was a self-made millionaire in the building trade. Much evidence of wealth: swimming pool in garden, the first colour television ever seen outside of a Chinese takeaway (terrible fuzzy picture).

12Steve Jones – location approximate. Close friend in O-level year. Went on holiday with him and his parents to Colwyn Bay in Wales while waiting for our exam results. We had an argument about beer, he punched me in the face, and the inside of my mouth was cut open from where it was mashed against my teeth. With my tongue I can still feel a slight lump there, nearly 40 years later. Was never friends with him again after that and he got his comeuppance in the form of woeful O-level results. Ha ha.

13Chris Talbot (Sydenham Villas Road) had started at Reading University when I was doing the Oxbridge term at school.

14He and Nigel Raynsford (Hales Road) were the two people with whom I first went abroad, in Chris’s Mini Cooper, when I was 19. Most nights we camped. It didn’t occur to us to take inflatable mattresses or sleeping mats but they must, surely, have been invented by then.

15Paul and Jan Matthews – location approximate. Geography graduates of Reading University whom I met when I was 17, at the Cheltenham Science Fiction Group. We shared an interest in superhero comics and they introduced me to the music of Little Feat, Robert Palmer and Weather Report – and the first food that I liked (bean curries!).

16Russell Campbell was a year ahead of me at school and read law at Balliol. We became friends during my first year at Oxford and had many adventures together in London in the 1980s. Communist and Buddhist, now a judge. His father owned the Majestic Hotel (see Drugs).

Girlfriends

17Shane, 3 St Michaels Road. Last name forgotten. An American who lived a few doors away with her parents, sister Martine, and younger brother (name forgotten). First mouth kissed, breasts fondled and (just once) first vagina touched. (NB: Location 18 is not her house

18but site of that first kiss – location approximate.)

19Janice Adams. First girl with whom I had sex. We met at Fletchers, Winchcome Street (see Employment and Sex).

11Gill Parker. Sandy Lane Road. Second girl with whom I had sex. She was in the sixth form at Pates (the equivalent grammar school for girls). Met at a disco. (See Sex.)

Sports

3Naunton Park Rec. Attached to, but not for exclusive use by, the school. Many hours playing football there. Vivid memory of one summer night when we were all playing football. The light took ages to fade and all our parents, by some tacit consent, allowed the game to go on and on until it was no longer possible to play.

20Sandford Lido. The endless summers of childhood! Lots of fun here though my memories are besmirched by the way that, on a crowded hot day when it was difficult to find a changing cubicle, I did finally come across an empty one – only to discover a pile of excrement on the wooden bench. Someone, obviously, had to clean that up. Much later, in the sixth form, some kids from school would clamber over the fence and go swimming after the pubs shut.

21Alston Baths. Venue for school swimming classes from grammar school. Indoors. A real verruca pit. The bus that took us there had to negotiate a bend on a very steep hill. When the incline was at its steepest – and the bus, therefore, canting over furthest to the left – we would all pile in to the left-hand seat at the front of the top deck to try to make it topple over. We really wanted it to go. Extraordinarily stupid, but the fact that it never did go over suggests that, despite our best efforts, the bus remained well within its performance envelope.

22Montpellier public tennis courts. Nigel Overton, Martin Sanders, myself and a now-forgotten fourth played our first ever games here in about 1971 or 2, after Wimbledon. There were grass courts then, now gone.

18Location approximate. Two abandoned, decaying but still playable courts here where one could play for free. Also nearby, for several summers during my sixth-form years, Bournside School generously left up the nets and kept the gates open on their makeshift tennis courts so that we could play in the evenings. (The courts were really just part of the playground, with very faded lines – and nets.)

23East Gloucestershire Tennis Club. I joined on a student off-peak scheme but played there only rarely, once with my friend Feisal Khalif (one of three black kids at school). Given his stand-out ethnicity and the way that – under the influence of McEnroe – we spent the entire match effing and blinding, I expected a few eyebrows to be raised at what was, after all, a private club. After one particularly invective-filled game, the man on the next court responded, in a remarkable display of plummy tolerance: “That’s the spirit!”

21 Woodlands Road. Our lawn was just about big enough to play badminton. Lovely evenings during the heat wave of 1976, when I was doing my A-levels, playing with my mum and dad and Daryl and Rhoda (see Relatives and Homes).

4Grammar school playground and fields. Bloodied knees and balls smashed into faces as dozens of games went on simultaneously on the playground. Long trousers caked in mud when we played on the field. Never drank water (dehydrated for six years?) and never washed afterwards. Happiness. Forced to play rugby during official “games” period. (See Schools.)

24Old Pats Club (i.e. a club for the boys and girls who had attended the grammar schools): two squash courts. Accidentally knocked out Michel Dungy’s teeth when the racket flew out of my hand and knocked his two front teeth out. These were the days before Tourna-Grip; just towelling grip. (See Beer and Trouble.)

Beer

25The Lansdowne. Where, aged 16, I ordered and drank my first ever pint of draught beer (I’d had some cans at home) though, oddly, given the momentousness of the occasion and my enduring long-term relationship with beer, the brand now escapes me. Whitbread Trophy? The Lansdowne boasted a full-sized snooker table and was popular with students, older than us school kids.

26The Double Barrel. My local (if one can dignify this atmosphere-less suburban boozer with that word).

27The Star. Bar on Regent St. in the centre of town. (See Trouble.)

37The Beer Garden by the Town Hall.

28The Swan. Many evenings spent there with Russell (see Friends) and others during the Oxford vacs.

29The Cotswold. Ditto.

24Old Pats Club. Where an entirely regrettable evening began. After a game of squash with Paul Patterson we had a drink at the otherwise empty bar. When the barman went to the back room to get boxes of crisps and crates of beer for the expected evening crowds (it was about 5pm at this point) we reached over and pulled ourselves extra pints. Then went out to meet others – the ones who used to go swimming in the Lido after dark – and drank more beer. (See Trouble.)

Sex (See Girlfriends)

18First kiss with Shane. Location approximate. Lying in the grass.

21 Woodlands Road. Sex with Janice in my bedroom, for the first time on an afternoon when my parents were both at work.

2Gill Parker. Lots of sex at my house (1 Woodlands Road) and hers (while our parents were out) but also, often, in my dad’s car in the car park of the tech college.

18This wasn’t some kind of lovers lane – i.e. a place where people knew to come and have sex – it was just a deserted quiet place – location approximate. We were never disturbed. Seems inconceivable now. There were so many undeveloped places – or Edgelands, to use the title of the book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – where you could have adventures within what Americans call the city limits. Nearby the car park was an abandoned railway line. The abandoned tennis court was close by too. Shane and I used to sneak into the houses that were being built near here. In fact, I see now, a whole cluster of activities took place in this neither/nor region. It’s all filled in now (by the houses that Shane and I sneaked into as they were being built). The space has been used, the past has disappeared, been built over – but it’s still there, in my memory.

Shops

13031Corner shops. Fairfield Walk, Francis St, Bath Road. The defining shops of my childhood. Three of them.

32Woolworths. Remarkable in that Penguin Modern Classics were sold here. I remember buying The Waves by Virginia Woolf in the upper sixth.

33Paperback Parade, Winchcome Street.

34Hancock’s, Montpellier Street. Second-hand shop from which we used to buy and steal. Alan Hancock was closely involved with the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

35Driftin’. The sheer intimidation of going into this hippie-style prog rock record shop with its distinct and subversive smell of joss sticks.

36Stylus 4. Not intimidating at all.

Venues

37Cheltenham Town Hall. The main venue for bands. This was where I saw Groundhogs, Dr. Feelgood, Queen (touring to promote their second album) and others.When Hawkwind played there (the Space Ritual tour) Nick Thomas and I spotted them in the bar and got our tickets signed by the band.

38Sandford Park. Site for a one-day free festival where Hawkwind were scheduled to headline. It poured with rain, Hawkwind didn’t show up. A wash-out. I mark this as the beginning of a life of weather-induced trauma and anxiety.

39The Night Owl. Many evenings climaxed with “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

40The Pavilion. Looking back I realise I never liked this sticky-floored prog rock “night club”.

Employment

]19Fletchers, Winchcome Street. My first Saturday job. A modelling shop (model planes, that is). I worked in the basement; Janice worked upstairs, full-time. She left to become a dental nurse. At my urging she bought an Afghan coat.

41Terry Warner Sports. Worked there Saturdays and one summer.

42A clothing store whose name I’ve forgotten. The manager was the first openly homosexual man I ever encountered. Despite all the talk at school about “benders” it was not a problem.

42Burtons. Near to the forgotten retail outlet above. Much less fun.

43Mercantile & General Reinsurance Company, where I worked for six months during my year off.

44Publishers – location approximate (name now forgotten) of text books, where I worked during one of the vacations – I forget which one. One of the people who worked there was the magistrate who handed out a stiff fine after the night that began at Old Pats Club (see Beer and Trouble).

Drugs

21 Woodlands Road. None while I was at school, only later when I was back home from Oxford for the holidays. Magic mushrooms, pot in my bedroom.

16Majestic Hotel. First LSD trip (at my friend Russell’s father’s hotel). (See Friends.)

Trouble

45From either side of a cutting of the abandoned railway line, Shane, myself and her brother got into a stone-throwing fight with a guy and his friend. Quite fun. A few hours later, he and I had a proper fight at the end of the track connecting St Michaels Road to the abandoned railway line, the derelict tennis court, etc. He pinned me down and could have really hurt me but contented himself with stamping on my wrist.

4Fight with Paul Hynes (Cheltenham Grammar School). I had him pinned down but when I let him up, he punched me in the nose. Started having regular nose bleeds after that.

2Boxing in my garden. Miles Lawless, Nick Thomas and Martin Sanders. One pair of gloves between two so you could only hit with one hand. Sanders got his nose bloodied. Rages and tantrums at home. Scuffles with my dad. I became progressively angrier with my parents and more unpleasant as I moved through school.

46Promenade. After drinking at the Star (see Beer) we went on the rampage, smashing shop windows, running over cars and – with surprising passivity – straight in to the back of a waiting police van. Spent rest of the night in the cells. Had to return to Cheltenham in the middle of my first term at Oxford to go to the magistrate’s court. Guilty of criminal damage. Fined. Criminal Record.

Death

47Uncle Eric, suicide (1993). Buried in Shurdington churchyard.

2Mum, at home, in her sleep (29 June 2011), after a long illness. I was in the bedroom next door. I went into her room in the morning and she was gone.

48Dad, Cheltenham General Hospital (30 November 2011), suddenly of pneumonia after a fall. I arrived from Paris half an hour after he had gone.

49Cheltenham Crematorium. Mum’s funeral was on 5 July 2011, Dad’s on 15 December 2011.

Appendix

50Cycling routes 1 and 2. To and from grammar school.

51Route to Oxford and London.