Thames Polytechnic: Finding My Feet

While not exactly Oxford or Cambridge, it did have a good reputation as a vocational engineering college, and these days University of Greenwich is quite highly thought of.
I lived for the first year in the halls of residence, a converted office block made into apartments by sticking a load of breeze blocks in place. Comparisons to prison were inevitable.

The location of my room meant that I ended up being friendly with Chris, other Chris, Julian, Mark, Howard and Brian, my fellow floor mates.
I was extremely home-sick in the first term, perhaps for much of the first year. But by xmas I was beginning to find my feet. I put on a lot of weight which didn't help. Felt incredibly self-conscious about it. college wasn't what I thought it would be - a hotbed of radicalism and left field taste in music and the arts. I immediately met up with largely conservative northerners who wanted to be managers, supported Thatcher and loved Iron Maiden or Phil collins. It was worse than what I'd left behind.

There's only a shit housing estate at the end of the rainbow. this was the view from my window, across lovely Woolwich:

The first term was mainly sporadic depression, especially after night-fall, feelings of not fitting in, panicking about the work-load, eating too much and a widening a waist line. I had a terrible hair style, greased back, long and messy. After years of struggle, I’d given up with my hair. I wore pseudo combat jacket and jeans. The pictures I have of me from those times show someone who is obviously into left politics, a bit, but not too overweight, and obviously a student. A cross between Rik and Neil from the Young Ones. More Rik then, more Neil in years to come.

I was aware of my physical decline, having been quite fit, and tried going jogging but ran into people I knew once too often so stopped – didn’t want to be seen. Later in the year it occurred to me to bring my bike up to London. I really missed cycling.

I was extremely home-sick in the first term, perhaps for much of the first year. But by xmas I was beginning to find my feet. The weight gain didn't help. I felt incredibly self-conscious about it. Also Poly wasn't what I thought it would be: a hotbed of radicalism and left field taste in music and the arts. I immediately met up with largely conservative northerners who wanted to be managers, supported Thatcher, did TA at the weekend, and loved Iron Maiden or Phil Collins. It was worse than what I'd left behind.

I thought everyone at College would be cool. How wrong could I be? There were some real reactionary types in the Halls of Residence. After I was moved in by my parents, and sent them on their way (puh-lease!) I tried to meet people, get myself organised etc. The music I played was supposed to impress people with what good taste I have. but my first Sunday night I found it just as difficult to socialise as ever. There was a northern kid who I was on friendly terms throughout the first year just cos we talked to each other first, someone from Northern Ireland who was into Cult/U2/Simple Minds shite.

Early on I met a guy called Chris Meager. He had such bland taste in everything that we ended falling out. not that I was bothered, but he was. He went out of his way to criticise my music, because he took the views I expressed far too personally. I was very vocal about what I liked and was very forthright about how crap the mainstream was. I didn’t intend to criticise what Chris liked, I think I assumed that anyone who was at Poly would have better taste. Or wouldn't be so fecking sensitive!

However he was my first lasting “friend” and through him I met others.
Chrsi M. introduced me to Chris P, Howard and Paul Simon (not him!). Although I felt left out a lot of the time they became the group of people most important to me while at TP. I got invited to the pub on the Friday and everyone from our group got knocked up and invited down. No-one was forgotten!

On that first Friday evening - at one door we knocked at this depressed-looking hippy came to the door with a massive afro hair-style. He said he wanted to stay in and watch the gardening programmes which infuriated everyone. The guy was our age and concerned only with watching shit lifestyle programmes on a Friday night. It's part of what I was trying to escape. But he was persuaded and we went out to the DG pub on Wellington St which became part of our routine in the first year. That hippy was Mark who I ended up sharing a house through the rest of my time at Thames Poly.

The DG used to have very good offers on beer - 50p Guinness or Fosters and once a buy one get one free offer. And it was one of the few pubs in Woolwich where students wouldn't get attacked or thrown out. First time in there I stared at these girls sitting near us (fellow students) and looked an idiot but soon learnt to control myself a bit better.

Met bloke, not part of our group, called Paul Harvey who if anything was more of a depress-head than me. He was into Factory stuff especially New Order, and African guitar stuff. I enjoyed sitting in his room listening to music. Every Saturday, while I cooked a risotto or Bolognese, he’d be in the barely functioning kitchen mashing potatoes. He clearly liked mashed potatoes. He was my first Mancunian!!

My social life was not good. I went to the Cellar Bar in first week and stood about drinking, unable to talk to anyone. When The Smiths "How Soon Is Now" came on I had to leave – I was so depressed. I felt safe in my room, with music, a small B&W portable tv I had bought for £30 from Dixons. I ate comfort foods: Pot Noodles, Vesta Curries, cheese, bread and pickle, etc, mega packs of Nik Naks. Nothing particularly healthy. My exercise had stopped.

College itself was good. I enjoyed learning. The people on my course did not fire my enthusiasm. There was a girl who seemed quite attractive at the time, and there was always a little band of blokes hovering around her. I considered myself a geek, or untouchable so never tried to talk to her. Not until the end of the year anyway when she turned out to be very approachable, easygoing and rather nice, and I now I realise that I probably stood a very good chance and at least I could have tried talking to her. If only I could talk now to my 18 year old self!!!

But I talked to Jackie first. Nearly 30 when she started, which seemed old to me, and wore mainly very long black skirts or jeans, and was very into Heavy Metal and Monty Python. Funny that they say girls don't like Monty Python and I've known two madly fanatical MP fans in my life, and both were women. Me and Jackie became very good friends while at college, though we never socialised aside from coffee in the canteen, I did once visit her house in the westcountry.

Then I met these two other blokes - one, a trendy, but into alternative stuff type, and his dorky mate who did TA at weekends. We were in same group for practical sessions. When I was really lonely I tried to become closer friends to these two, who I knew went to quite a few parties, at least they said they did. But never managed to worm my way into their group.

Can’t remember how I started talking to Dave and Harvey, but it was probably Dave who talked to me first, because he always liked to talk to random strangers, most of whom looked confused. And it was almost certainly about music. We shared musical likes, and I was able to bounce my explorations off of him. We ended up with parallel musical tastes that joined up along the way, like a strand of DNA. Although even I had slightly mainstream tendencies at times which soon got ironed out of me.

Food: nipping out for kebabs when meal was unpalatable. Occasionally managed to get up for breakfast. Very occasionally. Ended up sitting at table with “the lads”. Invented the game of squeezing the condiment sachets so the contents flew across the table at those sitting opposite. I had one hit the pillar we were next to, and it stayed there till end of term. Someone stuck a bit of paper to it and that stayed there too.

Well into the first term I would reach pub closing time and be out in the centre of Woolwich, really drunk and at a loose end, not wanting to go home. So I did what became a habit for me for the next decade or so, I went to the public phone on the corner of Woolwich green and made drunken phone calls to Plymouth. Colin was the main recipient. I was still on good terms with him then. He didn’t go to Poly or Uni, but jumped straight into work. Became an insurance man I believe. At one point he was my mum’s insurance man, turning up at her door occasionally to collect payments.

Also remember a Welsh girl who i met on the way to central London. – I remember she was struggling with luggage so I offered to help then asked her out after we seemed to be getting on fairly well. I gave her my number but the number was completely wrong so I had no chance. If we'd had mobiles then it would have been much easier.
Towards the end of term I was getting used to the place. I enjoyed going to gigs. I had connected with the local Labour Party and, again, had ended up being in with the 'Trots', for the simple reason that 'Trots' seemed to be the only people who were active, and all the moderates were bloody paranoid and wouldn’t give me the time of day.

This was the butt end of the GLC days. Thatcher thought that democracy had got out of control in London what with people voting for lefties and all that and decided to just abolish the whole thing, which had existed for decades, with no interference while people sensibly voted for upstanding pillars of the community, or Tories. Once a nasty noisy smelly lefty like Red Ken was running it, the whole organisation was clearly beyond saving. I voted in the last GLC elections – both for councillors and for ILEA – inner London edumacation authority, which was also abolished.

The main entrance which we hardly ever used

the car park at the heart of the complex

The entrance I tended to use: close to the bars

Thames Polytechnic – Indie Music

My time at Thames mostly involved going to see bands, and trying to get off with girls in the Poly bars. One of these aims was more successful than the other. I didn;t usually take my camera to gigs with me, but here are a couple of occasions when I did. Top - the March Violets at Woolwich Coronet:

Genuine Goth action from the 1980s there!

Terry and Gerry in the Cellar Bar - that's Terry, left, on the double bass and Gerry is on the right:
and Doreen Deville (aka Su Richardson, Su Sonic) - washboard and singing, behind Gerry.

Terry again:

I've still got their album which I bought at the gig. It's in the Buddy Holly style - hence Buddy's birthplace appearing in the title of their album, which had a picture of Birmingham's Bull Ring centre on the front.

After a faultering start in the world of Indie music I fully immersed myself. At first, I had hundreds of pounds in the bank account and the temptation to fritter it away on records was overwhelming. But, actually, I was really good. Apart from a few early purchases, I bought hardly any music through the college years. I picked up some cheapo tapes from WHSmiths - Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Beatles live, Blues compilations, etc. as I hadn't been able to bring my record collection with me, and only had a few tapes.

On the radio there was the John Peel show, and now I could go and see the bands he played - Plymouth might as well have been the Moon in musical terms. I suspect you could have received John Peel on the Moon too if you stood in the right place. I started to shed my old tastes, gradually. Most of the electronic acts had gone wrong by 1985 though I kept buying Numan albums on into the early 90s stopping just short of his career low. OMD's new material was offensively poppy, so much for their experimental remit. And my main hero - Bowie - was pissing his talent away at that point with, firstly a seriously substandard album, though not yet his worse, and a series of one off singles of variable quality. I made the decision to become a dedicated Elvis Costello fan. I'd loved Imperial Bedroom and in 1985/86 he released probably the two greatest albums of his career, "King of America" and "Blood & Chocolate". Though sorely tested at times, I remain a dedicated Costello fan.

But the sea change for me in 1985 was my immersion in the Independent scene, which at that point was still largely undefined and pretty much seperate from mainstream. occasionally a band would break through, such as Aztec Camera, or Orange Juice, but only after being signed to a major. Early on I became a Wedding Present fan - they played the cellar bar performing their one EP at that point and a couple of extra songs, but the show was over after about 30 minutes. I stood at the front and kept shouting "Felicity" which was an Orange Juice cover they used to do.

Other bands that pushed my buttons were Stump, Jesus & Mary Chain, Half Man Half Biscuit, Cocteau Twins, The Fall, Nico & The Faction, The Men they Couldn't Hang, the Pogues, etc. but not yet The Smiths.

Started going to gigs with Dave. We saw the Wedding Present and Soup Dragons. There were others too - Jamie Wednesday who later became Carter the unstoppable Sex Machine... Went to see The Fall, who I already liked, from the Beggars Banquet sampler tape that came out earlier in the year, and from John Peel. It was in the Coronet. I got roped into giving leaflets out before the gig by the Labour Society. They mainly got used as paper aeroplanes during the gig. I’m pleased that I helped influence a Fall gig in such an important way.

By Christmas I saw Nico and the Faction, got big into Velvet Underground. Made idiot of myself at party in Plymouth by drinking vodka like water and getitng way too pissed.

I first got into the Fall while still at school - a sampler compilation from Beggars Banquest came out and contained a track from their current album. Through 1985 I taped new and old sessions form the John Peel show and bought a couple of their albums on my meagre grant. Then The Fall came to Woolwich!

This is an exceprt from The Fall gigography website:

Thursday, 6 February 1986 Coronet, Woolwich, London SE18
Mansion (intro tape) / My New House / Bombast / Disney's Dream Debased / Rowche Rumble / Lay of the Land / Hey! Luciani / Gut of the Quantifier / Dktr Faustus (two attempts) / Hot Aftershave Bop / Cruiser's Creek / Lie Dream of a Casino Soul / L.A. / Couldn't Get Ahead / 2 x 4
Supported by Alternative TV. £3.50.
Peter: "Paul Hanley drummed here at short notice in place of Karl and couldn't get Dktr Faustus right as you can tell from the tape and 2 attempts at it. Mansion as per 10.85 tour on tape only. Definitely source for Rowche Rumble on Crash Course promo."

Funnily enough - I can't remember seeing Alternative TV, but I do have one of their records and like it very much - and I'm pretty sure I would have known who they were at thetime even - but, alas, memory is a very fragile thing.

Trip to Holland 1986

From left, Chris, my bag, unknown, Brian, Julian, Chris, Mark, Paul, Howard.

Howard, Julian, unknown bystander, Chris

Howard, Mark and Julian

everybody, and the ferry we rode in on.

Homeward bound after very good day :)

Summer 1986

This was the summer I worked for Bowyers. They had a factory on the edge of Plymouth that made pork pies and pasties.

I sailed through my exams with the exception of one subject which I intended dropping anyway - electrical power. Then, after our little trip to Holland, it was back to Plymouth.

I'd bought some export strength vodka and was busy using it up in the day or two I had left after the exams had ended.

My Dad came to collect me on such occasions. I had to move all my stuff out of the accomodation. He had a capri which wasn;t the most practical for carrying a lot of stuff in, but we managed.
He arrived while I was sitting in my room with Paul Simon. He though we were kissing. Oh dear - I was just leaning over him looking at a photo from our dutch trip.

Summer holidays is a tradition I miss these days. In 1986 I needed to find myeslf a little bit. Having become detached from me and what had been my lfe up till then I'd gone a bit wrong. The weight gain - looking weird - depression - just feeling lost I guess.

So - back to my mother's cooking, going out with my friends at the weekend, and knocking around with Mark again. The canoeing got me back on form and I lost the weight - that and eating properly again.

Lisa was with Terry - a man in his 40s and all the rifts had healed while i was away. so I spent quite a lot of time round there playing snooker in the garage. Terry supplied me with bicycles through this period. He owned a removals company and used to get these things from house clearances. I think he gave me two bikes in all before his death from Leukeamia.

I joined Lisa and Terry down in Cornwall - they went camping near Newquay and I cycled down about 60/70 miles to join then for a night or two. I got a lift home though.

The canoeing with Mark involved going out to the Great Mewstone and the Plymouth breakwater. We explored old forts out in the sound. The Mewstone is an island off Wembury in south Devon, and it was pretty heavily covered in vegetation so we didn't get very far from the coast line. We even once made it onto Drakes Island (?) which actually isn't far from the mainland.

I got my hair cut in the style of David Bowie on his 1984 album - Lisa was working in a hairdressers at the time - and i think it was that one (?).

The Bowyers job only lasted two weeks. I met up with old school friend Gavin Smith who was a trainee - management - while i was a grunt on the production line. This was the class divide demonstrated for me - middle class Gavin, former head boy at school, had got a management job while I was slaving away on the production line and using the shitty canteen where everyone could take the piss out of me for havign soft hands and reading the Guardian. Gavin didn;t want to know me at that point, and I didn't really feel much different.

The others quickly grew disatisfied with the speed I worked at. I was tried out on getting the hot stuff out of the ovens, injecting pies with jelly, putting wrappers on the pasties - this was done by machine but it was so decrepit that it kept going wrong so someone had to be on hand to help it out - loads of pasties got broken and the packet said made in cornwall (the factory was in Plymouth!) My hands soon became covered in blisters, I just couldn't physically do the work I was being asked to do. I got called into the bosses office and told they were letting me go. I spent an easy week in the warehouse measuring out powdered potato and spices, then I was offski with about £300 in my pocket and all the broken pies I could carry.

Second Year: 1986 to 1987

It was a cleaner leaner fitter me that went back to Woolwich in September.

Dad drove me up to London with my stuff. I took a bike up this time - not sure how we got it in the car, or whether i went back for it a few weeks later.

I was moving into a house in Plumstead. Mrs Patak. At first I was sharing a room with Mark - a nightmare scenario. In a bunk bed. I was underneath and it wasn't safe. the bed on top wasn;t attached and I feared being crushed in the night. also Mark was a neanderthal in many ways.

We cooked together, which felt really odd, but not as odd as shopping together. Eventually my room was ready. I liked my room even though it had a large hole in the floor through which you could see the kitchen. It was high up with tremendous view out the back. I put my desk against the back window and watched the world while i studied. also had a sofa. and a bar fire which i could use freely.

My wisdom teeth that had flared up in the summer was no longer a problem, though still had appointment for removal. Mum came up and saw me through it - it was a requirement that I not be alone after being released from hospital. just as well, i could barely walk.

There was no Dave - he'd failed his exams. Harvey had disappeared. We never saw him again.
I stayed in touch with Dave though - I think I visited him once at some point - it was the start of me picking up the guitar. Kings Langley out near Watford, with the Ovaltinies factory. Dave's Dad worked for Mirror Group newspapers, and had a nice pension lined he thought.

I think I had even less friends this year than the year before but somehow, it didn;t bother me quite so much. at least I wasn;t fat, and had a decent haircut.

The man who worked for free for Mrs P. My fruit being stolen while i was ill.

in the run up to my second year exams - I went onto a mainly muesli diet.

I got involved with the Labour Party in Plumstead - a lovely group of people. We met in the Working Men's Club / Labour Club - whatever it was....and in the pub. I started spending my sunday afternoon's having drinks bought for me, mostly, being a poor student, and sitting in lock-ins eating free grub, drinking free beer. But I also campaigned for the Labour Party
Council elections in 1986 - labour won.

26th February - a byelection after guy barnett had died - rosie Barnes, a hateful SDP candidate won.

I remember attending a voting count in the town hall and labour winning a council election. But also remember there being champagne on hand for celebrating our victory in general election. We lost but drank the champagne anyway.

My last involvement with the labour party in Greenwich would be in 1989 campaigning for the Euro elections.