Saturday, May 16, 2009

How I Came To Be Very Strange - by Peter-David Smith

I joined the Air Training Corps in 1966. I was 13. I was a pacifist. Yes.
Yes, I know, it's a contradiction. I was a teenage pacifist and I was in the Air Cadets of my own free will. We did rifle drill regularly. Marching up and down with Lee Enfield 303s on our shoulders.

The Lee Enfield 303 is a rifle used by the British Army from 1895 onwards until the 1950s. When we drilled with them in 1966 they were an old weapon beyond any other use. They all had a history, though, of usage as the primary British rifle in various conflicts including both world wars.

In 1965 the part of Surrey where my family lived was taken into Greater London. We kids didn't know it at the time (because it never occurred to the teachers at our lousy school to mention it to us) but we were now, suddenly, Londoners.

So, as a whole bunch of new Londoners unknowing we continued on with our lives, finding activities to mess around at after school. The nearest large town from our village was called Sutton and there was a squadron of the Air Training Corps there. 219 Squadron, with a little hut for our meetings, or 'parades' as they were called.

We met twice a week, after school, and drilled. We also learned about unarmed combat and the inner workings of the aircraft engine. We had a bar, where shandy was served as if it was real beer and NCOs told exagerated stories of their sexual exploits.

My main interest in joining was flight. I loved aeroplanes, superheroes and pretty much anything which flew. I read 'Air Ace' comic books, which told tales of the Battle of Britain. At night I dreamed constantly of flying.

After a few weeks in the ATC I felt fairly comfortable with the routine of the meetings every Tuesday and Thursday night. It was different to school. It was a place where I didn't get beaten up by bullies.

I was still a pacifist, or I thought I was, but I remained childishly unaware of the strange contradiction created by holding pacifist beliefs while a member of a militaristic boys club. I suppose this is another aspect of the Asperger's Syndrome. My brain was a wiz at maths but could miss the significance of major philosophical issues which were crying out to be addressed.

I had a sort of 'code of courage' which was all my own. If a bully at school began to push me around I would stand my ground and take it but not fight back. I would stand there, refuse point blank to be intimidated, and talk to the bully about the virtues of pacifism. I would never run, never hide, and always speak up for pacifism, even when being hit. My courage came from the image of Jesus on the Cross and the early Christian martyrs. Once a teacher called me out to the front of the class to punish me for talking. He made me hold out the palm of my hand as if to be hit. Then he raised a metal 12 inch ruler up as if to strike me with it. He paused for a moment to allow me to feel as if I would be struck on the hand. Then he appeared to recover his composure and to realise that the school rules would no longer allow corporal punishment. He put the ruler aside, sent me back to my place and the lesson continued. But I felt like a hero, because I hadn't flinched.

I loved stories of World War Two, of Spitfires and Hurricanes shooting down Luftwaffe ME 109s and I never, ever thought it was in any way contradictory to my pacifism. I just didn't think of it. This seems so bizarre to me now, as I look back all these years later.

I carried on attending meetings, cleaning my rifle with a 'pull through' (a bit of rag on a string) and taking part in activities designed to prepare us lads for military service without the slightest twinge of hypocrisy because it simply didn't cross my mind.

Eventually, after three years of training and a summer camp where I finally got to realise my dream of flight (I got to go up in a Chipmunk training plane and also in glider) I saw the contradiction. The penny dropped. I woke up to the realisation that I would need to go one way or the other. Pacifism or military training. Not both.

A lot things happened that year. It was 1969. I left school and went to my first fulltime job. Less than a month later, my father went into hospital and died there.

Rewind the tape.

Playback again.

I left school and went to my first fulltime job. Less than a month later, my father went into hospital and died there.

Rewind the tape.

Playback again.

I left school and went to my first fulltime job. Less than a month later, my father went into hospital and died there.

Then the LCC, London County Council, which had taken over from Surrey County Council, decided to demolish the street where we lived. The house where I was born and grew up was smashed into rubble and we were re-housed further north, at Morden.

It was a hell of a year. I changed from being a schoolboy to holding down a full time job, then my dad died, then our house was demolished, then Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, then the Beatles broke up. And, oh yes, somewhere in amongst all this confusion I finally realised that I couldn't carry a gun (albeit a non-firing one) and simultaniously remain a pacifist. I made my decision and left the ATC.

I was stunned by the death of my father. I was still only 15. I only held together thanks to a strict routine of commuting to work each day and reading, reading reading. Between the twin distractions of work and literature I slowly processed through the mixed-up emotions of grief.

My mother and sisters coped without much help from me. I was useless. I would get up each day, eat breakfast and commute into London. I'd go through my daily working routine, then come home in the evening, eat meal and disappear off to my room to read stacks of comics and science fiction books. I don't think I was any help at all except that it gave my mother one less thing to worry about. The fact that I was settled in a job where I was happy meant something to her and that's a good thing. 'The boy's got a job, anyway' all the relatives kept saying, 'The boy's got a job at least.' Nevertheless, I was strangely clueless and distant, withdrawing further into my Asperger's shell.

When I left for work in the morning I walked along the road reading a book. I began to develop my peripheral vision to a greater extent than the average person. I felt as though I had a super-power. I could walk along the entire length of a street without bumping into lamp-posts, pillar boxes or passers by. I navigated around all obstacles by 'super' peripheral vision, as if it were Spiderman's spider-sense or Matt Murdock's radar ability.

On the bus I read my books. On the train I read my books. At work I read books as much as I could get away with. I lived in a science fiction fantasy world.

As the year's events continued, my life got more surreal. Apollo Eleven reached the moon. I went to my first stage play performance at the Shaftesbury Theatre in Shaftesbury Lane, west end of London. It was Hair, the hippy rock musical. I began to grow my hair long and read hippy underground newspapers like International Times (known as IT for short), Gandalf's Garden and Vishtaroon.

I began to wonder about drugs but, since I didn't smoke tobacco and didn't drink alcohol (and had no desire to do so either), I decided it was too early to be considering drugs. I read a few books on the subject, though, so I'd be able to make a more informed decision one way or the other when I got older.

My job as an office boy at Rupert Murdoch's 'News Ltd of Australia' involved the following tasks: Making coffee for the journalists, answering the telephone switchboard, keeping copies of Australian newspapers such as The Australian, the Sydney Daily Mirror, the Sydney Sunday Mirror etc., and running errands.

This latter was the most important. I had to collect copies of press releases from places all over London. This meant travelling around one of the greatest cities in the world and specifically calling at places where something interesting was going on. Places where there was something worth releasing a press release about. In the 21st Century these press releases would go out by email, I suppose, but in the years from 1969 to 1971 when I worked in Fleet Street it was necessary to go and collect a press release by hand. So I got to go to Ten Downing Street, the American Embassy, Australia House, South Africa House, The Old Bailey, The Inner Temple, Television House, the BBC's Broadcasting House and many other newsworthy addresses.

During these years I grew my hair longer and became more eccentric in my style of clothing. I began to dress like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel. I had a suit with a fawn waistcoat. In the waistcoat pocket was a chain attached to, not a pocket watch but the mainspring from an alarm clock. I had altered the collars of many of my shirts to make them resemble wing collars. I wore elasticated bands around the upper part of my shirt sleeves (in the style of a real old Fleet Street journalist). I began to wear badges. It was a bit of a late 60s, early 70s fashion to wear political, humourous or satirical badges on the jacket lapel. I wore two badges. One said 'peace' and the other said 'I am an enemy of the state'.

And I still walked along roads reading books and navigating by unusually powerful peripheral vision. I never bumped into lamp-posts, pillar boxes or passers by. I lived in the world of my books and had power to avoid confrontation with the objects of the real world.

I read every kind of book. Serious, funny, fiction, non-fiction, left-wing, right-wing, centre-wing, comic books, historical, scientific, everything. I also listened to every kind of music I could find, jazz, rock, folk, classical, everything.

I believed that the government and the advertising agencies were conspiring to brainwash us all into being stupid and narrow minded (and thus easier to control). I was determined to thwart their brainwashing by deliberatly broadening my mind and intelligence as much as possible.

I travelled back and forth each day, from Surrey to London, from London to Surrey, and all around London, getting to know all the nooks and crannies of the city. Where to find the most interesting secondhand bookshops and unusual architecture.

Inside my head I suppose I was still adjusting to all the strange changes which were taking place. I had left school and got a job, my dad had died and I still had to cope with the grief, I was becoming an adult, going through physical puberty later than most kids my age (I had various genetic abnormalities), the moon landing of my beloved science fiction had become the moon landing of science fact, The Beatles broke up (this was generally considered by everyone to be a much bigger event than would normally be when a band breaks up) and, in 1971, the currency of Great Britain changed from the pound to the new decimal euro pound.

There was an awful lot for a slightly mad boy to adjust to.

And that, I guess, is a major part of how I came to be very strange.

(This is a chapter from my book: 'How I Came To Be' which is published on the internet under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence - It may only be copied for non-commercial purposes. Any copies must carry the author attribution (written by Peter-David Smith) and there must be no derivitives. As long as these rules are followed the work may be non-commercially distributed. I would appreciate a message being left here at my blog to inform me when the writings are being used elsewhere. And the same applies to all my blog entries. Thanks).

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