Between September 1978 and 1979 I have two memorable encounters with pop culture. The first feels more important to me at the time, but in fact the second is genuinely career-defining, although I don’t realize that when it happens.
A few weeks after arriving at Manchester I see my heroes Richard and Linda Thompson perform live for the first time, at nearby Salford University. It occurs to me that if I go early, I might be able to sneak into the sound-check and perhaps (gasp) meet them.
When I get there they are indeed setting up in the concert hall. To begin with I watch proceedings from the rear of the room as R< and their band set up. There are also two children racing round the room, I notice, one of whom has now grown up into Teddy Thompson. Cautiously, I edge further into the room. For a chunk of time, Richard is up on stage sound-checking and Linda (who at the time plays no instruments) is relaxing nearby. Shyly I introduce myself as a fan, and we start talking. I can’t remember what we talk about, but despite my shyness we chat for quite a while. I ask Linda to sign my ticket, which she does with gusto. i then ask if she would mind asking Richard to sign it. At this stage in his career he is famously uncommunicative with his fanbase, so extracting the signature from my hero is a relatively frosty experience. As the rehearsal gets a bit more serious I am left with the kids for a while. Bored, the two of them suddenly decide to rearrange the hall seating, and I spend a few amusing minutes chasing them arround as they dismantle the venue and I put it back together again.
Later I go and get something to eat and when I return, I grab a seat in the front row. A woman comes and sits next to me, and “shortly we are a-talking”. She has hitchhiked long-distance to get here, she tells me. For the final leg, she says, she gets a lift from a lorry-driver. As they hurtle down the motorway, the driver informs her he’s a tranvestite (to use the label of the time9. He’s wearing women’s underwear now, he informs her. She seems relatively unbothered by this as she recounts it, but to me this almost whiffs of a rebuke from God. You may think you’ve had fun associating with musicians young man, but I’ve just directed this woman towards you to remind you that you are, in fact, weird.
Before returning to University, I go to Birmingham to attend my first comic convention. Remarkably, I see that someone has posted an image of the original flyer for this convention, which I haven’t seen in thirty years.
Although I have continued to devour comics and buy fanzines, I have been too shy to get actively involved with fandom, so I don’t know anybody when I get there. It may be wearily familiar to you to discover that I don’t talk to that many people, but mostly flit around the con like a ghostly presence. Be patient – there does come a time when I actually start to do stuff.
Fan-turned-pro Dez Skinn is a guest at the con. Dez is still in circulation today and seems much as we remember him – ’nuff said for us industry veterans. At the time he is Editor-in-Chief of Marvel‘s UK operation. Travelling down in the lift with him we are remarking on the return of Doctor Who to our screens later than evening, and Dez pre-empts a later public announcement by telling us that Marvel have done a deal with the BBC to publish a Doctor Who comic. This publication, though much mutated, is still going strong today.
Weirdly, although I hardly talk to anyone while there, I do strike up a conversation with Mike Lake. With his partners Nick Landau and Mike Luckman, Lake has just opened a comic shop in London called Forbidden Planet – FP to its friends – which will compete with Dark They Were …, eventually driving the latter out of business. The trio are also involved in distribution- the company which will eventually become Titan Distributors and will lead to a mushroooming of comic shops around the UK – and in due course they also move into publishing.
Mike Lake proves very amiable (he still is) and we have quite a relaxed chat. A few years later, as my degree course is close to its end, I find myself with no idea about what to do for a living – a few dreamy ambitions, but no proper idea. In a manner that, for the time, is totally unlike me, I attempt to parley my brief meeting with Mike that summer into a job interview. In the summer of 1982 I write to Mike reminding him of our meeting, detailing my extensive fannish knowledge, and asking for a job. Nice man that he is, he responds positively, of which more anon.
I don’t know if the attitude I am about to describe now is specifically male (whatever my true identity I was by then socialized as a male) or just a generic display of immaturity. Although I had a lovely time with L– before coming to University, and was frankly amazed that anyone was interested in me at all, I managed to hold thoughts in my head at the same time along the lines of “I can do better, there’ll be lots of nice girls at university etc”. So my assumption is that, with my departure to Manchester, our relationship is as at an end (although I never have the nerve to say so). When I get there, my success with girls in the first year is, in fact, zero.
Meanwhile L– has been diligently laying plans to pursue me. She intends to go to teacher training college, finds a suitable place in Manchester, puts it top of her list, and gets a place. So as I return for my second year, L– begins her course and I fall uneasily back into the relationship that I have been too cowardly to end. For the second year I have moved out of Slems with AH, AK, MD and JB and we have rented a delapidated house on the Rusholme/Moss Side borders from an elderly Polish couple, Mr and Mrs Webhof, who live nearby.
It’s hard to remember when and how my transness reasserts itself – the exact sequence of events is lost in beer-soaked college memories. But I think I have a sense, from this distance, of why it reappears so forcefully. The period of transition from school to university was, mostly, a good time. The third year of Sixth Form was great, as you know. In the first year at Manchester, I made some good friends, played my first lead role on stage, had quite a bit of fun overall and managed to stumble through my course.
The second year of the degree, surrounded by the reproaching presence of unread or partly-read novels, is much harder. I am bored and unmotivated. I don’t find the teaching stimulating, and while I’m not uninterested in reading Fielding, or George Eliot, or whoever, I lack the passion and dedication to do the level of reading required, which means tutorials are increasingly the Land of Bluff, as I try to make intelligent comments about books I have generally not finished.
The other issue is back home. However difficult it has been growing up, the family home in Cuffley represents certainty and security of a sort – I can always go home whatever happens. Except that now I can’t – I sense the deteriorating spiral of my parents’ relationship and it will not be long before my father tells me that they are going to divorce. Home – at least the way I knew it – is disappearing. College is, among many other things, an initiation into adulthood, and it’s an initiation I feel as though I am failing badly. The hoped-for narrative that says “I recovered my academic career by returning to school, and now I am at university, and I will be successful there …” is failing. Little wonder that my true self chooses to reassert herself, although I don’t see it like that at the time.
I can remember almost running away from tutorials. Sometimes I start to go into university and then peel off before I get there and go somewhere else, drift around the city with my own desperate thoughts. There is a growing sense that I want to move forward with what I then see as a need to crossdress. Of course if that was all it was, then it would probably be easier to get on with things. But it’s much more than that, although I don’t dare admit it to myself.
All students are given a whole bunch of welfare information on arrival, and from that I come across a Manchester gay support line. One day I find a telephone box and phone the number up – the person who answers doesn’t seem to have much in the way of suggestions about support for crossdressers.
L– lives in a hall of residence some way out of the city, but at weekends she generally comes and stays in our house. Remarkably I am the only resident with a girlfriend, at least to begin with. I have the smallest bedroom at the back of the house, with a tiny bed. The mattress has seen better days, but the Webhofs have helpfully supplied a piece of hardboard to put under it and try and reinforce it. The things we tolerate as students …
In the daytime I talk with L–, we play records, eat/go to the pub with the others. At night we share my dilapidated bed and have some fun. L– does not suspect my secret – no-one does – but these feelings are growing stronger, and stronger. Then one night, at the age of 21 … I tell her.