Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Sugar Baby Love

It’s my birthday and it’s going to be a great night. By happy coincidence the most exciting new band of the year - Sigue Sigue Sputnik - are playing the Dancehall and that should be a riot (quite literally, judging by what happened at the previous night’s gig in Norwich). They feature former members of Generation X, how could they fail to be great? And not only that, but my best and oldest mate has travelled up to Essex from Brighton to help me celebrate.

It’s February 27 1986. I’m 22 years old (just) and stumbling my way through a Literature degree at Essex University. And I’m having a ball. To be honest I never really wanted to go to University, but now I’m here it’s like being a member of the aristocracy. I rise late, listen to some records, read some books, put on my monkey boots and ex-Bundeswehr shirt with the little German flag on the shoulder - get a girl to crimp my hair, and hit the bar for drinks around six. When the bar closes everyone goes dancing to records by The Smiths, or The Cure or New Order. It’s a beautiful dream of a life.

Only I’m about to wake up. Around 4pm my girlfriend – the University Women’s Officer no less (this is a big deal at Essex Uni in the 1980s. Like going out with a member of the politburo in Soviet Russia) will tell me that she’s having a baby..

I might be at University but I’m a slow learner, because this scenario is actually a repeat, a sequel.

Two years before, twenty minutes after returning from the inter-rail trip that filled the gap twixt school and uni, my girlfriend from home had told me the same thing. She’d even started the conversation in the same way.



‘I said congratulations. I’m pregnant.’

But Monica hadn’t go on to say she was keeping the baby. Instead she had explained that while I had been away exploring the fast food options in railway stations from Harwich to Thessalonika and back, she had been waiting, hoping, praying. And when those prayers hadn’t been answered, she had arranged visits to clinics -  and now I had to go and see her parents who wanted to check I was okay with the arrangements they had made. It was an excruciating conversation, but it only lasted ten minutes and it was the only one I ever really had about what her dad described as The Situation. There was tea, there was cake and there absolutely wasn’t recrimination. They didn’t even tell my parents. All done quietly, cleanly, tidily.

I had got away very, very lightly. I feel shame and embarrassment about my behaviour then, but I don’t feel guilt about the termination. And I really hope Mon doesn’t either. There will always be boys like my dumb teenage self – and that’s why it’s important we have strong pro-choice laws. So that idiot boys like me don’t ruin the lives of unlucky girls.

But I had got away too lightly. My memory of The Situation had quickly faded like a surreal dream I had once, lost in the giddy whirl of  SU bar booze and immature debates about the obvious need for a revolution.

And so now here I am in my bedroom on the swaying 16th floor of a tower-block named after a leading liberal economist (or philosopher, or political scientist – I was never very sure who these people were to be honest), feeling the cold sweat of a particularly painful attack of déjà vu.

This time there are no parents to quietly, cleanly, tidily arrange things. We’ve made our bed and we’ve got to lie on it.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik are bloody crap too.

But universities are strange places – or they were then. Places cocooned from some of the harshest weather of the real world. Yeah we’re going to have a baby that will be born just as we finish university, but that isn’t going to blight anything. It’s not as though we want proper jobs or careers in any case.

And we know that children aren’t easy exactly, but we’ll have help. This baby is going to be a community baby. A baby raised not just by two parents in the discredited nuclear model, but by a loose alliance of us and our most socialist friends.

Within weeks of our final year finishing however, most of the friends have gone. And it turns out they’re mostly doing proper jobs after all. They’re on teacher training courses, or doing social work, or working in local government. In a few cases they’re busy becoming lawyers, journalists, television execs.  No time for other peoples’ babies.

And of course, this was always going to be the case.

And now we’re living on an estate in an Essex dormitory town and wondering what the hell happens next. I’d love – love – to be able to say that I man up, rise to the challenge and find a way to support my new family. Alas, no.

Instead I somehow continue student life by other means while my partner uses the skills honed on the Student Union executive to get a job in the housing advice centre. And she turns out to be pretty good at it. Meanwhile I bumble along getting a series of jobs that involve filing, photocopying, answering the phone and watching youth club kids batter each other during games of uni-hoc. Not quite Mcjobs, maybe not even as useful as a job flipping burgers, but mindless and part-time.

My real life is still pretty much bargain booze and listening to records, though we do gradually join a crowd of other misfits and drop-outs who also have young babies.

And that is one thing I do learn during this period – that our instincts about everything being better if kids aren’t raised by the parents alone were absolutely right. You need places to go to drink tea and swap stories. And you need someone to change the music while you change the nappies or vice versa.

And I actually don’t think I’m a bad Dad. At least my daughter and I are still close. And there are I feel – hope – some advantages to having a young, reckless, thoughtless parent. You go wherever he goes for a start. You weave through traffic on the back of his bike and you get to hang out for hours minimally supervised while the adults talk about whatever it is they talk about. And you get to hear some great sounds.

And later, when it’s parents evening it means your young dad doesn’t embarrass you by being bald. And it means your parents aren’t quite so grey and tired looking as those of the other kids. No, instead they embarrass you in other, more inventive ways – with their cheap bangles and their ridiculous Krazy Kolored hair.

So life does its slow vandalism and the hair stops being Krazy Kolored. And H’s mum and I split up. And I get my call up papers. Because that’s what it’s like if you hit 31 with an English degree but without a proper job. It’s like being conscripted. You absolutely have to become a teacher. It’s all that’s left.

So I do that. And to my own surprise I’m pretty good at it I think and in a school I meet my current partner and then, blow me – fifteen years after that awkward conversation up on the 16th floor of a tower-block named after a Political Scientist (or Philosopher, or Economist) I come home from school and the conversation goes like this:



‘I said congratulations. I’m pregnant.’

Slow learner you see. Maybe the slowest learner you ever met. We have three children between us. I had one when we met. C also had one and now we have one together. We are a blended family and emblematic of modern Britain. Three kids each with a different surname and a very different skin tone.  One 25, one 18, one 9. They all get on. Sometimes they even bicker as if they are all eleven. They’re rarely all in the same place these days, but when they are it works somehow.

And now I write odd little novels about failure, under-achievement and the strange shapes families can take now. You can’t escape yourself however hard you try. However far you go. Once a slow learner, always a slow learner – but at the very least you won’t find me demonising teenage parents. In fact I tend to think young parents can make the best parents – even where the dad is an idiot. Young, old, bright, dim – we all muddle through with our fingers crossed.

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