Sunday, 13 September 2015

The life of an expatriate child

A bumpy ride in childhood on the ground and in the air
(c) Steve Palmer 2015
Singapore in 1971
Wikipedia describes the ‘Jennings and Darbishire’ series as a collection of humorous novels of children's literature concerning the escapades of J.C.T. Jennings and C.E.J. Darbishire; schoolboys at Linbury Court preparatory school. 

But to me, they were evil.

When we were kids, my sister Chris and I went to boarding school. From 1971 to 1975 our parents lived in Singapore. Chris and I were in different schools in the UK and we only saw each other in the holidays. Not good. And I was encouraged, by the school, to read about Jennings and Darbishire, who were also in boarding school, but who featured in stories from the 1950s. So, it was even more draconian and depressing than the real thing.

And it was a strange childhood. We were a family of ‘expats’. Expatriates. Those that have gone to live abroad. As expats, we were members of the Tanglin Club. Opened in October 1865, its website says that for many years the Tanglin was one of the “pillars of social life in Singapore, for successful members of the European community.” This is embarrassing to think about now because in the 1970s we were segregated from Asian people. Not that any Chinese people wanted to go to the Tanglin Club, I’m sure.

These days we shop in Aldi and fly on Ryanair, but when I was eight until I was 12, I was a member of a club that wouldn’t have felt out-of-place in the British Empire. I’m sure there was even one of those hessian fans that gently wafted warm air around. Not that Chris and I cared. We were there for (a) the swimming pool and (b) the tuck shop.

But actually getting to Singapore. Well, that was another thing…

Wobbly journey

I still think it was challenging to expect your kids to get on a plane and fly out to Singapore when they were aged ten (Chris) and in my case, eight. But as an adult, I’ve had therapy. No; it was a challenge. Especially when no one had told me what airplane turbulence is. No one. Nobody. Not a jot of pre-flight information on that one. Nada.

The first time I ever went on a plane had a big effect on my future airline travel experiences.

So it was 1971. We flew to Singapore and the first leg was from London to Rome; and there was bad turbulence. I thought the plane was going to crash and shouted, really loudly, words to that effect. My sister was with me on that occasion and I think was so totally embarrassed about my reaction that she’s blocked it out of her memory. She says she can’t recall the incident. I can. “We’re going to crash and we’re all going to die!” A bit dramatic. I was eight. Oh; I’ve already said that.

Even now, I’m no good with turbulence. My brother-in-law Andrew has explained about different types of clouds and how turbulence doesn’t just happen when it is, per se, cloudy. But that incident prepared me for a life of what the family like to describe as me possessing ‘sweaty palms’, because my hands do get clammy for take-off.

There are some YouTube videos that can help - but they don’t help me. Although, Mrs Steve and I had a very frightening incident flying from Costa Rica to Houston – the plane was sent careering off course, twice, during ‘clear air turbulence’ – there were no clouds. People in front of me were all propelled towards the ceiling in one big Mexican wave. And, afterwards, part of me felt it was actually quite comforting. For all the times that I’d had irrational fears of turbulence, here was the occasion when my fears were correct. A stewardess broke her arm. It was the real deal. I felt justifiably terrified.

Isn’t it amazing what an incident at an early age can do to someone? And how it can mess with them forever and ever and ever…

Horror ship

Alton Towers. 1985. The day I discovered that I’m terrified of – no, scrub that – allergic to, pleasure rides. A day out with Girlfriend Steve (as was), plus her sister Ruth and Ruth’s then boyfriend (now husband) Andrew. Soon I was on a big dipper, being carried upside down and around and feeling my heart leave my mouth - and then getting suspended in the air. However, the thing about a big dipper is that you can at least have some concept of when the ride’s going to end. So in a way, the big dipper was nothing.

Because then we got on a ship. Yes; a ship that was a ‘pleasure ride’. This ship went back and forth, leaving you with a feeling of horrifying whole-body discombobulation. And not an end in sight. This time, my heart was hovering above this pirate ship, as if the evil spirit of a treasure island character was about to snatch it away. And I turned into an eight-year-old boy, screaming for my life at the enforced and totally unnecessary turbulence.

And Andrew thought it would be hilarious to turn round and tickle me under the neck and to, you know, keep reminding me of how terrifying it all was. This made it 100 times worse. I screamed and screamed – the ship went back and forth, back and forth – and then I screamed again. Actually, it was worse than turbulence. That pirate ship was a silly, stupid, ridiculous terror machine.

Anyway, after it stopped I felt particularly relieved, but then I felt queasy and then I had to have two weeks in bed; with vertigo. Never again. I’m shaking now thinking about it. The others had a lovely time and bought some candy floss.

I think I'd better leave right now...

In the summer of 1982 the Headmistress from my sister's school retired. The family were invited to the leaving do and it was chance to look back on our rather strange childhood of expatriate living and bumpy rides. 

But the do wasn’t our ‘thing’. There was a stage. Another dais if you like. It had potted plants, classic drapes and frilly lampshades. It was as if my Grandmother had kitted it out. I quite expected to see her 78 record player there. And there were three instruments: A cello; a piano; and a violin. My sister really hated one thing about her childhood: Her cello. She had to lug it everywhere. Mind you, it meant that she always got a lift everywhere from our parents, whereas Muggins here had to always get the bus.

So my sister hated the Headmistress’s event because it reminded her of a life and a cello she thought she’d left behind; and my Mum hated it because it was like an afternoon in my Grandmother’s flat, where the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to tick very loudly because we’d run out of things to say. Personally, I was just bored. And, anyway, this recital was only set to last an hour and a half.

Then, some perfectly charming and nice older ladies came onto the stage to play their instruments, with the Headmistress appreciatively sitting in the front row. It must have been members of the music department who were providing the entertainment.

Anyway, it started. All went well. But it reminded me of Hinge and Brackett. Hinge and Brackett, for those too young or too disinterested, were female impersonators. Wikipedia describes them as follows: “Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket were the stage personae of the musical performance and female impersonation artists, George Logan and Patrick Fyffe. Active in theatre, radio and television between 1972 and Fyffe's death in 2002, this comedic partnership entertained the public in the guise of two elderly eccentric spinsters, living genteel lives in the village of Stackton Tressel; and seemingly celebrating their former ‘careers’ on the provincial operatic stage.” Just Google them. Or don’t.

And then it happened. I leant over to my Mum and whispered: “They remind me of Hinge and Brackett.”

Mum giggled.

Chris laughed.

I giggled. It was infectious. Before we knew it we were stifling laughter, bodies shaking, tears running down our faces. All at the Headmistress’s leaving do. The woman who had given so much to this school and who was presumably appreciating the style and manner of her send-off, had, a few yards away from where she was sitting, a family of extremely ungrateful Palmers, by now shaking their shoulders and desperate for the show to end so that they could go outside and get the laughter out. And then we laughed more. And more. We laughed for most of the 90 minutes.

Have you ever been placed in a situation where, to laugh would be the most inappropriate thing? It was excruciating and funny. Excrutiatingly funny. And pretty awkward. So many emotions; so much value-for-money. We were waiting for it to end so we could go outside and laugh properly. But, of course, by the time we did, we couldn’t laugh any more.

Penny drops on the Tube

But, writing this in 2015, I’m on the Piccadilly Line and it’s hit me like a bolt from the blue what was really going on in that room. As a family, we were split asunder in the 1970s. I lived in the same country as my Sis but only got to see her on holidays in Singapore. We were placed in boarding schools and in many ways they were formative years. Example: I go to gigs and other events on my own. Why? Because, from an early age, I had to learn that the person who I could most rely on……was me. No one’s blaming anyone. I’ve had therapy. 

Mum still feels terrible about leaving us, but Dad’s job prospects were worse in the UK than the great offer he had to work overseas. And it’s made my bond with my sister strong.

But, I’ve just realised on the Tube, and wow, what a moment (welling up – slightly awkward) that what happened at Chris’s school was a moment when the three of us had a good laugh at the whole boarding school experiment and yes, stuck two fingers up at it. I’ve now realised it was a moment when the tension broke and, quite frankly, we didn’t care what anyone thought. It was a golden moment with my Mum and Chris.   

Don’t you want me baby

So I blame my parents. Oh, get over it Palmer. My family was unbelievably close once we’ve survived the Singapore experiment. I even got to actually live with my sister from 1975-1980. And then she went to University. And I was there at her 21st birthday party in Oxford.

It was 1982 and Human League were in the charts (although my sister thought their hit was about unwanted pregnancy: “Don’t you want my baby?”). Chris’s coming-of-age party saw Mum and Dad do that thing where they came along to say hello for the first half hour. We were all desperate for them to leave. These days, our kids wouldn’t allow us to be there. Too embarrassing. So, in a way, my parents were lucky to be present.

My sister’s friend Mark was on the DJ decks, pretty impressed with his own selection of music, including cool bands like Scritti Politti. And Dad said something disparaging about the music. Mark should have put two and two together and realised who this middle-aged couple were, and then realised that they were my Mum and Dad. Instead, he shouted: “Well, you come over here if you think you can do any fucking better, mate.”

To my Dad. To. My. Dad. Let’s not talk of this incident again.  
Although, let’s keep it activity in the early eighties and move from Oxford, to Rugeley in Staffordshire. Let’s talk about Mrs Steve.

Midlands mayhem

Mrs Steve was at a dinner / dance. They were all the rage as Soft Cell’s Tainted Love topped the charts. Mrs Steve and her sister Ruth grew up in Rugeley.

Rugeley isn't well known. The town probably doesn't see the producers of property programmes turn up and do up people's houses. There was always Dr Palmer (no relation), the Rugeley poisoner. Or, as Wikipedia describes him: ‘William Palmer (murderer)’. Anyway, he was hanged and it sort of put Rugeley on the map; in 1856. It's been pretty sleepy ever since. So, we were watching the comedy 'Raised by Wolves' recently; set it Wolverhampton, the single Mum goes out on a less-than-glamourous date and, on her return, says rather ironically: "He took me to Tesco in Rugeley - and back."

These days the town hosts a massive Amazon depot; across the road from the power station. A sort of old days / new days snapshot of modern Britain. Mrs Steve freely admits that until her sister - Ruth’s - husband Andrew turned up and started to take them to clubs and gigs in Birmingham and Stoke, her social life was pretty mundane; it was either house parties, the social club at the power station or a conference suite at a nearby hotel. Edgy stuff.

This hotel’s function room had to have a shiny parkay floor.  It was mandatory. Or should have been. It was the eighties, after all. At a sixth form party in the function room, in front of her peers, Ruth went to the loo and returned to the table, only to turn on a heel and go arse over tit on the heavily-polished floor. Everyone laughed. The entire sixth form. Then Mrs Steve went to the loo and, on her return, did exactly the same thing. Arse. Over. Tit. Everyone laughed. Again. It’s the sort of déjà vu development that sisters don’t ever want repeated. They were forever remembered as the sprawling pissed sisters. But they weren’t pissed. They were just unable to negotiate that slippery floor in heels. 

How dare I write about my wife embarrassing herself? Well, for the record, she saved me. Have you read the book (or seen the film) One Day, by David Nicholls? I was Dexter. I was in danger of turning into a right royal wanker. And this book would have been five times bigger; it would have been an encyclopaedia. To stop this happening, all Mrs Steve had to do was commit to spending the rest of her life with me.  In return, I’ve embarrassed her on a daily basis. X.

Rich world, poor me

Around the same time as the Staffordshire slip-up, down in Hertfordshire, I was becoming increasingly upset and frustrated by what was happening in the Third World. I was idealistic and determined to do something about how the rich world was worried about petty things…when people were dying in developing countries. So I did something very radical and joined the Welwyn-Hatfield branch of the World Development Movement. I know. Edgy stuff. Except when I arrived for the first meeting, at someone’s house, with people who were all probably at least 20 years older than me, I said the wrong thing.

Instead of saying: “I’ll take my coat off”, I mistakenly said: “I’ll take my clothes off.” Well, it wasn’t that kind of meeting, in a house full of people that, I would, at the time, have described as ‘middle aged’. It was, though, like a premonition of events at the massage parlour thirty years later. I’m not sure I went back to another meeting. And I didn’t save the world.

Also circa 1981, I went around with a condom in the pocket of my jean jacket. Looking back, that’s a really embarrassing memory. I mean, really: jean jackets? Well, it was 1981 after all. It got worse. I tried to buy an album at J and J Records, Hatfield and could only recoil in horror as, instead of a five pound note, I produced that (still unused) condom out of my jean jacket pocket by mistake. I think the shop assistant, who was aged perhaps five years older than me, laughed mainly because the condom looked like it had passed its sell-by date. I think the outer wrapping had worn down to the rubber. Which Hatfield girl would pass up a chance for some action with me? I wanted a girlfriend. I didn’t get one.

Going swimmingly

Back to family life. I’ll finish this chapter with a story from around the time that I was writing the draft of my book about my son Stan, ‘Down’s with the kids’. I like to go for a run at lunchtime once a week. Occasionally though, I pick up a sports injury and I have to go for a swim. This one time, I was determined to get from my desk at work to the pool and back within an hour. I hopped on a Boris Bike (one of the shared cycles you can rent that are scattered over London).
To succeed, the mission involved running from the cycle drop-off point to the pool and changing in double-quick time. All so I could prove a point. The trunks, I have to say, felt a bit tight. I swam up and down, had a shower, got dressed, ran to the bike rack and was back at my desk. In 59 minutes. Result.

When I got home Mrs Steve quizzed me on the trunks. They weren’t mine. They had to be my eldest’s. Harry was fifteen at the time, and it was slightly inappropriate for me to wear them. Yes? But no; it turns out they were actually my youngest’s trunks. Stan was twelve. And they had hardly covered me – anywhere. I was in such a rush that I didn’t notice.

The pool I go to has historically been one where quite a few of the clientele are very fit - and good-looking - gay men. Now; I’d put on a few pounds due to my injury and subsequent lack of activity. I must have looked like a desperate fat old man in a mock g-string, on the pull.  Of course, my family made me re-enact the event, a number of times, with Stan’s trunks on, much to their mirth. I’d imagine the masseuse from chapter one would have whipped them off in a second, although she may have had to use a can opener.

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