The paper round

I was ten when I started my paper round, which was my first paid job. That was the last time I got pocket money from my Dad. I ended up with the paper round by default, because my older sisters, who had been the ones to start it, had quickly realised that it didn’t pay enough to be worth doing. So Muggins here, as the saying goes, ended up with the whole thing. It may seem impossible that I started so young, but I just double-checked on the newspaper’s web site: it was indeed launched in 1973, Year of the Tree: I was ten for eleven months of that year.

It was the first of the first local free sheets, an advertising-supported local newspaper called The Herald, which was to be delivered, gratis, to every household on a Friday evening. If you were the publisher of the Luton Evening Post or the weekly Dunstable Gazette, it must have seemed like a ridiculous idea, like the internet must have seemed to newspapers in the early 90s. My sisters signed up to deliver an enormous quantity: 531, a number I’ll never forget. But no: it’s not my memorable number for banking or anything else like that. 

This 531 was for the whole of the mile-long Jeans Way, plus the whole of the same length of the Luton Road that ran parallel to Jeans Way, plus several side streets. My sisters arrived home with their first pile of Heralds and immediately saw a number of problems. First of all: weight. This was not an amount of newspapers you could carry over your shoulder in the supplied shoulder bag. You couldn’t even support this quantity of newspapers on a bicycle with a rack. So my younger brother’s old pushchair was pulled into action. The pile of newspapers would sit in there, and my sisters would pull out thirty or so at a time to deliver.

The next problem was the sheer amount of time they would take to deliver, and the distance you would have to walk. On launch night, the weather was atrocious: it was dark, raining, windy. My older sisters, cannily, roped in some of their younger siblings to help finish the job quicker in these dire conditions. But the rate of pay was only – get this – half a penny per paper, so spreading the payment around made the job completely pointless.

£2.66 between two was ridiculous. Between three or four it was impossible. Which is why it didn’t take long for the job to become mine and mine alone.

531 newspapers, £2.66. It took a really long time. They were picked up from a woman’s house down the bottom of Dale Road. Even with the pushchair, this was really too many to carry, so I started splitting the pile into rough halves. They were supposed to be delivered on a Friday night, but on my own I didn’t have the time for that, so I would do half on a Friday and then the other half on a Saturday morning. Friday I did the Luton Road and the side streets off that, and then on a Saturday I’d finish off with Jeans Way and its cul-de-sacs. I’d get my pay, in cash, in a small brown pay packet.

My first step was to spend a whole lot of it on sweets, chocolate, and a fizzy drink. So I’d get a Yorkie and a Nutty, and maybe a packet of Munchies, and then a can of Lager and Lime or Shandy or maybe a Coke or a Cherry Coke. Sugar to fuel the long walk. I did this paper round, solo, rain or shine, winter or summer, for five or six years. In the final year or so, I seem to remember, the rate of pay went up to some other fraction of a penny, and I was being paid £3-something until I finally got a proper part-time job in Bejam, the frozen food supermarket.

On a Friday, I was usually out till after seven in the evening, and then on a Saturday morning I’d be out for another couple of hours. It was a criminally low hourly rate of pay: what, 50p an hour? Or, to state it baldly, £0.50 per hour. Not to mention that it was bone-crushingly boring.

How did I occupy my time?

I would sing. By the time I was 14, I was getting into music, so I would sing whatever I was into at the time. Principally, this was The Beatles. After a while, once I had all the Beatles’ singles and albums then extant, I would start with the opening track on the first album (“I Saw Her Standing There”), and I would sing every single song until I got to “Get Back” on Let it Be. I may have skipped those I didn’t particularly like, but I knew all the lyrics to all the songs. So that would fill my five hours. I’d also sing Dylan, Springsteen, and the Velvet Underground.

The other thing I did, which was just a mindless kinaesthetic activity, was to make myself as efficient as possible in a time-and-motion kind of way. Marginal gains, as it were. I would shave seconds off my time, increasing my hourly rate by fractional amounts. Some houses, for example, had no fence between them, and a convenient path beneath their front windows you could walk, to avoid the back-and-forth to the street. But there was a problem: the laden pushchair, with all the papers, would need to be transported between driveways so I didn’t have to double back for it. So I became really good at judging the amount of force needed to push it just the right distance, so it was waiting for me when I came out of the next gate. For some rows of houses, this would mean a hefty shove to get it fully four doors down.

It was pretty amazing: I would push, and the pushchair would travel, straight line, and come to a halt next to the gate I would be emerging from after I’d pushed two, four, even five or six, papers through letter boxes. I was uncannily good at this. It wasn’t something I was conscious of until a girl I knew, who’d watched me do it from her bedroom window, came along one day and tried to do it herself. Cue scenes of an out of control wheeled vehicle full of newspapers swerving wildly out into heavy traffic on the Luton Road.

I say vehicle because the pushchair wasn’t a pushchair after a while. When I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted to make a go cart, so I converted the pushchair. This left me without transport for the newspapers, so I used the go cart for that purpose. The front wheels now steered instead of being fixed, which made the pushing-between-house skill even more challenging. Still, I rose to it. I was able to control the front wheels to the extent that the go cart would travel in a straight line, and I could also scoot along with it, my foot on the back, my hands clutching the steering rope, travelling quicker between delivery areas. You rode this go cart like a chariot, really, because there was a platform for your foot at the back to help get it going.

I’ve always been quite good at that kind of thing, in my own quiet, competent way – but only when nobody is watching. I was a maven on my little scooter when I was a kid: used to use it to create giant, long, black skid marks down the pavement, especially outside Lisa Johnson’s house in Lamb’s Close. Later, when I was eighteen and living down in Herne Bay, I would cycle on my five speed racing bike for miles on end, with my hands off the handlebars. My handling of the pushchair and later the go cart was uncanny. 

I still have dreams in which I am in this go cart, or something like it, running it down a hill towards some close or cul-de-sac, steering by the skin of my teeth.

In places, I would take just the right amount of newspapers for a short Close or Crescent, leaving the pushchair or go cart on a corner to wait for me. This came from knowing, eventually, how many houses there were in this section, and so on. There was also a number of newspapers left over every week. Partly this was because of over-estimation, or because some houses were empty, or because some householders didn’t want ‘hawkers or circulars’, which I took to mean The Herald. So I always ended up with about 18 spare newspapers.

These came in handy one Tom Sawyer summer when my friends up the park decided to help me finish my paper round in double-quick time. They knew I wouldn’t be able to stay and play cricket or whatever with the 500+ papers to lug around, so about six of them offered to help. And there was another kid there, the local bully, who was hanging around with us, friendless, and basically bugging us. So I carefully counted out the spare 18 papers and told him a Close to deliver them to. I knew him well enough to be sure he wouldn’t deliver them, couldn’t be trusted with any actual addresses. And this tactic worked a treat because, after he’d thrown them over the nearest fence, he ran off home, probably chuckling about how he’d got out of the work. Which nicely dealt with the problem of him hanging around with us, because he went away and never came back, not being willing to face the terrible consequences of dumping the papers.

The girl who came to help one day was JB, who was my second girlfriend. My first had been a girl from my class with whom I shared a snog at a teenage party. The problem with her was that I didn’t like her very much, especially as she immediately went overboard with the gifts and a song she decided was ours. I dumped her quickly. The shame of it had been that, at that same party, my real attention had been on JB, who totally blanked me.

That was the thing about JB. She blew hot and cold. She acted like you didn’t exist, but then suddenly you were the centre of her universe; and then you didn’t exist again. She had a best friend called JM with whom she went everywhere. They called themselves Bill and Ben, and even went through a phase of wearing matching floppy sunhats, embroidered with their nicknames. To be out with JB (Bill) was to be out with JM (Ben). But we weren’t really going out in the sense that we went on dates. No, we just hung around in the park together, all day and all night, leaving after dark, usually when the park keeper came and chucked us out so he could lock the gates.

JB lived in the old Police House on the Luton Road. Her Dad drove what was then a fancy car: a Ford Granada, in the fancy fastback coupé version. Our neighbours had a Mark III Cortina, which was also a pretty nice car in comparison to the various broken down old clunkers my Dad drove. But the executive class Granada seemed like a rich person’s car: especially with the word Ghia on the back.

(Ghia referred to Carrozzeria Ghia, the same Italian coachbuilding firm that made VW’s Karmann Ghia, which for a long time was my dream car. I still get a pang.)

I’d liked Bill for ages, but she ignored me until it was convenient to hang around with me in the park during the long summer holiday. And when that fairly hot and dry summer of 1975 was over, she dumped me again. As I’ve mentioned before, 1975 is the forgotten summer of the 70s. We Gen Xers all remember the drought of 1976, but ’75 was almost as good a summer. A long stretch of sunshine, with a little bit of rain. Anyway, I spent the following year, the last year at Middle School, feeling kind of broken over Bill.

I yearned for her, and always looked up at her window in the Police House when I passed on the other side of the road. And then one day, something that had never happened before: a face at the window. My eyesight is too terrible to actually recognise a face across the street (astigmatism, which does weird things with faces in particular), but I guessed it might be her. That was odd, because the windows of that house had given me nothing in over two years of looking up at them. 

There was a part of the route that took in about ten houses, on the other side of a car dealership on the Luton Road. So I generally parked my go cart on an empty patch of ground and walked down to deliver the papers without it. When I came back to it that day, there were two girls sitting on the wall on the empty lot, singing some song: Bill and Ben. They’d tried to follow me down the road, they said, but couldn’t see where I’d gone, so they waited for me.

We went along back towards the Police House on that side of the road, and it was then that Ben tried to push the go cart from one garden gate to another, with predictable results. “I’ve watched you do it,” she said. “You make it look so easy.” I did: at this stage, I was generally launching the cart forward with my right foot.

We got to the Police House, and Bill invited me in for a drink. Orange squash, whatever. She took me upstairs to her room, then closed the door behind us, leaned on it and (genuinely) said, “Aha! Now I’ve got you.”

I don’t know what thoughts went through my head at that point. Nothing coherent. With hindsight, it was an opportunity I should have seized. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in her room. The year before, she’d let me cup her breast as we lay on her bed. But that paper round day, I panicked, and pushed past her and out of the house, back to the job. All I can say in my defence is that (a) she caught me completely unprepared – the contact was totally out of the blue after months of her ignoring me; and (b) I’ve always been conscientious to a fault about work – even shitty work, especially shitty work (because that’s all I ever really do), and I felt I needed to get back and finish the bloody paper round.

Oh my, a fool such as I. I was always out of my depth with her. Anyway, a brief return of the relationship because of course it was summer again: this time, the long, hot one. That was the summer I was in the park for most of the daylight hours. I can’t believe how young we were.

Once the summer holidays were over and we started at the Upper School, she dropped me like a hot rock. I don’t think she ever spoke to me again. I remember seeing her at school and she wouldn’t even make eye contact. Although she was the same age as me, she somehow always seemed like an old soul. She left school straight after ‘O’ levels and seemed to become an adult long before those of us who stayed on in the 6th Form. You’d see her and think she was a good looking woman in her late 20s, but she was still 17, 18. It was one such sighting that inspired the story The Pavilion, in which I reminisce about hanging around in the park during that long hot summer of 1976.

Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.