“What do you do with life when you are eighteen other than enjoy it?” I asked a friend this morning.
Being eighteen was fine; at nineteen, I hit a wall. After two terms at university in London, I dropped out. They were very gracious, gave me a year off. The summer of 1980 was spent in nothingness, by September I had to do something and found a post through an organisation called Community Service Volunteers. The voluntary post came with board and lodge and £10 a week pocket money.
My housemates were preparing to be monks; there was no television in the gate lodge in which we lived; no radio, and only an elderly portable record player on which to play the handful of old LPs they had. Their conversation was often esoteric religious stuff; not much in it to interest one approaching his 20th birthday with no religious background. The best moments were when they got their Woodstock records out and talked of times when it seemed that the world could have been a good place.
It was a frequently lonely. The pocket money didn’t go far, not that there was much to spend the money on; a pint at the local pub and occasional visits to the cinema to see things that were even half interesting. Sometimes the dark shadows of depression would close in and the whole experience would seem like an odd play in which I was no more than an onlooker.
Slowly I began to buy odd records of my own. These were greeted with scorn and derision by my housemates; I still laugh at memories of them singing their own words to Blondie’s “Atomic”. They were good blokes; just from a generation before the rough edgedness of punk.
One record got me through, Hazel O’Connor’s “Breaking Glass”. The album came from the film of the same name, a film that tracked the meteoric rise and fall of a fictional rock star. The rock star’s fall comes with deep depression, and the angst and melancholy of the music express the pain of being unable to communicate from behind a wall of darkness.
The film was shown at the cinema and I bought the album at a record shop. I played it, again and again. The lyrics still come back with little attempt at recall. “Will You”, expresses a sense of complete inability to put into words what it was you wanted to say. It was an angst-filled version of a sentiment expressed, humorously, but seriously, by Madness in “My girl’s mad at me”‘; that one might feel great love for a person and yet be completely unable to articulate one’s feelings.
I remember travelling to Brighton on a bus with my luggage in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag to see her play at the Brighton Conference Centre, a trip that must have cost at least a week of my money.
Contemplating being eighteen, I remembered being nineteen, and am grateful to Hazel O’Connor for being able to get through to being fifty-four.