A whiff of A level summer

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As the intro began I caught a deep, unmistakable whiff of 1982.

The innocence of sleeping children
Dressed in white and slowly dreaming
Stops all time

“Primary” by The Cure. When I hear it now, I am transported to the back bedroom of my parents’ house that looked out over their lovingly tended garden and my dad’s greenhouse.

It was a bright, airy room I’d decorated myself — buttermilk walls with salmon pink woodwork and a frieze of tulips around the window. What was I thinking? But then I’d also installed some blue spotlights that gave the room an eerie atmosphere and made it impossible to read in without another lamp. I had a bed, a portable black and white TV, a bureau and a wardrobe (both of which I’d also painted and stencilled). I’d often sit in my late grandmother’s Edwardian armchair I’d somehow acquired, with my drawing board on my lap. The windowsill was full of cacti and houseplants I’d had a brief fascination with — the ubiquitous Mother-in-Law’s tongue, an Aluminium plant, Peperomia, Rabbit’s Foot and a Rubber plant. I also had a Yucca that I would draw several times, and was soon to make lino print of in college.

I’d just completed my A levels — two, not three, as I have always regretted. I’d dropped Maths in the very last term, stupidly refused to sit the exam as a supposed slight to the teacher I hated. It was the last few weeks I was to live with my parents permanently, as I was leaving for college that coming autumn. It would be the first time I’d have lived anywhere other than Brynamman. A leap into the dark awaited that scared and excited me. I was going onto a Foundation course in Carmarthen, 30 miles to the west, to study Art and unfurl my future.

The very first time I saw your face
I thought of a song and quickly changed the tune
The very first time I touched your skin
I thought of a story and rushed to reach the end too soon

I was 18 and had been in a relationship with a younger girl for almost a year by then. We were wrapped up in our nascent, fumbling romance, seeing each other two or three times a week. I also found time for going to pubs, cricket matches and the cinema with friends. So I was rarely home, and when I was, I hid in my drawing and music, barely seeing my parents, avoiding their well meant questions that I unreasonably viewed as prying. As a parent myself now I realise how painful that must have been for them — I have carried the burden of being that selfish arsehole for many years now as I never had the chance to apologise.

I spent a great deal of my time drawing and I was constantly making stuff — collages, sculptures and paintings. To what end, at that time, I was never sure. The urge to be creative was always scattergun, but powerful nonetheless. It made me receptive to influences from many sources.

Music was important to me and had been for the past few years. I couldn’t play any instruments, wasn’t interested in learning, but I was into the music and ethos of punk, new wave and indie, seeking out the more obscure bands. These helped to inform my political leanings and tastes in books, design, cinema and art.

This was the summer I read ‘On the Road’, ‘1984’ and ‘The Rachel Papers’ along with Spike Milligan’s series of war memoirs. I went to see ‘Blade Runner’ in Swansea and ‘Tron’ at our local cinema. I mercifully managed to avoid seeing ‘E.T.’ but was dragged to watch ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ by my girlfriend. She also made me squirm through ‘Dallas’ and ‘Fame’ on TV. I made her sit through the World Cup until I got sick of her commenting on the players’ tiny, tight shorts.

The cultural glacier moved very slowly in the valley, I tried to keep ahead of the curve by reading the ‘NME’ or ‘Sounds’ every Thursday as there were very few opportunities for seeing or hearing the bands I liked. I religiously listened to John Peel on Radio 1 every weekday evening, watched ‘Top of the Pops’ (everyone did) and the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, along with “yoof” TV shows such as ‘Something Else’. There was no MTV and certainly no YouTube.

We were invited to a constant stream of 18th birthday parties, usually dances in country clubs or nightclubs in Swansea or Llanelli. Despite my musical taste I was not averse to dancing, in fact I loved it. After a few pints I could have been dancing to the ‘Birdie Song’ for all I cared. I’d already conceded to having to wear a suit to get in anyway.

Where I lived there were simply no gigs and it wasn’t easy to get to Swansea or Cardiff and back late at night unless it was a chartered coach. I could drive by then but wouldn’t have entertained the thought of driving to a gig in the big city. I was hamstrung in my ambitions by the village mentality I’d grown up with. I doubt my Dad would have loaned me his van for such a trip anyway.

I worked for him that summer, not realising it would be the last time I did so. Despite enjoying it most of the time I would always find something “more important” to be doing from there on, one of those thoughtless, lazy decisions I took that I have regretted for years and that must have disappointed and hurt my father immensely. My mother was sometimes depressed and borderline agoraphobic, getting through her days with the help of Valium. I was crassly unsympathetic, finding the whole thing confusing and frustrating. In my defence I was constantly worried about her, but also keenly felt the need to escape, as I would that autumn.

My parents were losing me bit by bit and must have recognised it. I now realise that I was also losing them. I was spending a lot of time at my girlfriend’s house. I got on well with her parents and brother and was always given a hearty welcome once they realised it was a serious relationship. And it was. Although it ultimately came to nothing we stayed together for six years, naiively getting engaged along the way.

Sleeping children in their blue soft rooms still dream

Some years ago I put together a playlist of the music that came out that year. I’d named it Blue Light Disco (in reference to my weird bedroom spotlights) and it is what I am listening to while writing this. When I look at the titles of the songs now they conjure a time of thrilling uncertainty, excitement and expectation. The atmosphere of that summer is still there, ingrained deep in my sensory memory and I suspect it always will be. The music is an instant catalyst for bringing it into the immediate present carrying with it a dazzling sparkle of sunlight from that busy, formative summer.

The further we go, and older we grow
The more we know, the less we show

Song Lyrics: Primary by The Cure

Written by

All this, and Welsh too.

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