Spurred on by a stranger, I took my last drag of a spliff before the clock struck 12. And I found the perfect way to fill it
As my mother was a Jehovahs Witness, my childhood was devoid of all the usual opportunities for merrymaking. Celebrations were considered pagan, so we had nothing to look forward to all year no presents, cards, tinsel or sparklers, no Christmas, birthdays, Easter, Bonfire night, Mothers Day, Halloween, Valentines Day, solstices or Pancake Day. But somehow, on New Years Eve, under my fathers influence, we were allowed a thimbleful of cherry brandy and arms-length participation in the heart-thumping Big Ben countdown, when the old year made way for the new and we were all born again.
I left home in 1976 at 16 and moved from bedsit to bedsit in the cool student-land of Birmingham, where I brushed up against music and drugs, art and protest and debate. Although I never quite got around to a Christmas tree, I did learn how to celebrate my birthday three days and nights with some sticky Lebanese hash and a bottle of Thunderbird.
I would temp for a few months or pose at the local art college as a life model, get some money together and spend the rest of the year on the dole, going to gigs and parties and festivals, stoned, half-smashed or both. I wouldnt have admitted it then, but a lifetime of indoctrination had done its job and I believed that Armageddon was all but nigh. At any minute, the vengeful Jehovah would destroy the drug-taking fornicators with foul mouths and morals to suit. If there was a sin I hadnt committed, I had to get on and sample it. Might as well be hanged for a sheep
Hence, by New Years Eve 1980, Id been going at it pretty hard. I was at a party in a Victorian mansion in Moseley. The house was full of bedsits with damp armchairs and splintered floorboards. Every door was open, every wall had people slouched against it two-deep, weed-fog wafting from room to room, music rattling our bones and the sash windows. I found a perch at the top of the stairs to smoke my four-paper trumpet spliff and wait for midnight.
I dont remember the name of the girl who sat next to me, but she was wearing the shiny red lipstick of the brave and beautiful. She had a sort of Cleopatra hairstyle and a black jumper that had slipped from one shoulder. I offered her my joint and we smoked together, talking about a mutual friend who had killed himself under the influence of magic mushrooms and another who had been sectioned after repeated psychotic episodes. After my own terrifying bouts of near madness and paranoia, I suspected it might be time to go easy on the ganja.
I should give this up, I said, taking a hard drag and breathing as little as possible to keep the vital smoke inside for as long as possible.
She looked at me for a long time. You? Never.
Could if I wanted to, I replied.
No, she said.
Tell you what, I said. Bet you I dont have another thing after the stroke of midnight. She shook her head, passed me the spliff back and I sucked itdown.
Partly it was her disbelief. Partly it was my stubbornness. Partly it was just the right time. At midnight, at the last gong, I stopped taking drugs.
I took a job in a solicitors office, but that only used up the daytime; there were long nights to get through and I needed an alternative form of recreation. I dont know why I turned to reading: maybe it was the woman next to me on the bus who was so engrossed in her book that she missed her stop; maybe it was memories of Bible stories and the poetic beauty of the Song of Solomon. But one day I asked my boss for a list of the 10 best books hed ever read.
I picked the first two off the shelf at Dillons and devoured them like spliffs. I finished his list in a few weeks and then worked my way through Dickens and Thackeray, George Eliot, the Bronts and all the usual suspects at the rate of about two each week, sometimes more. Addicted by then, I continued through the centuries to Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and on and on into France and America, Germany and Ireland.
Ive never regretted the wild years, but Im glad I stopped when I did that New Years Eve. My immersion in reading has been an education of sorts. Certainly I absorbed notions of the craft of good writing, found seams of literature that spoke to me and which Ive since mined again and again, discovering along the way my own voice and the world I want to write about.