Friday, January 30, 2009

Bully For Me - Virgin On The Ridiculous

Odd morning. Really odd. 'Unwelcome-blast-from-the-past' odd. I went into town to do some shopping and, it was only upon getting to the bottom of Northumberland Street and seeing the shutters up on Zaavi and a hastily printed note cello-taped to the door, flapping gently in the breeze which said THIS STORE IN NOW CLOSED in less-than-comforting bold letters that I realised a significant part of my past has gone just like that. The original Virgin Records store in Newcastle, which opened in Eldon Square in the mid-seventies, was a strange, otherworldly place. I remember it was always far colder than it should have been because of an industrial strength air-conditioning unit that blasted artic currents of air down the neck of your parka every couple of minutes. It was somewhere that punks, skins, rastas, disco Stus and dirty stinking lice-ridden hippies gathered in a kind of uneasy truce thereupon to listen to the latest releases and chartbound sounds and, occasionally, buy some of them.
It was where I bought my first ever punk single - 'All Around The World' by The Jam. And, most of the singles (punk or otherwise) and LPs that I purchased over the next twenty years came from there. (HMV was sometimes cheaper, the now long-departed Callers' was better for twelve inch singles, but Virgin always had a far wider choice - stuff you simply couldn't get elsewhere - and, by no means a minor consideration, had far cooler carrier bags. Lurid orange, they were.) It was in Virgin that I first saw The Clash in the flesh. During the summer of 1978 they turned up to do a signing (I think for the 'Clash City Rockers' single) having been banned by the local council from playing at any venue in the city after two riotous gigs the previous year (a ban that stood until 1980, incidentally). I subsequently worked quite a bit for Virgin Books and it would always annoy me to go into a Virgin Megastore and find that they didn't have copies of any of my stuff on their shevles. That was, kind of, the way that Virgin as an organisation seemed to operate - left hand never knew who the right hand was doing. When they became Zaavi a few years ago I still carried on shopping there on the very odd occasions when I still bought CDs or DVDs over the counter, rather than online. That was more out of a sense of loyalty than anything else. But, of late, they've been massively hit by a combination of online trading (which I'm as guilty over as anyone), the recession and, most cruelly, their distribution deal with Woolworths/2-Entertain. And now, they're gone. It's very sad.

So, anyway, there I was looking blankly at the metal shutters having a 'Ah, dear old Virgin's gone...' moment when someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and there was this guy, early forties, slightly greying hair, whom I didn't recognise. He asked 'excuse me, are you Keith Topping by any chance?' 'Yeah,' I mumbled, somewhat defensively - as you do in such circumstances (I almost said 'I might be!') - and he replied 'I listen to you on the radio. You're very good!' Ah, gee. I was really (almost embarrassingly) pleased about that. I thanked him, most genuinely, and then he said 'you probably don't remember me, I was in your year at Middle Street.' Then he told me his name. And I remembered him all right. I was bullied at school. From being about seven or eight years old right the way through to Sixth Form and my A-levels a decade later there were a succession of nasty, thuggish, eyes-too-close-together twat-bastards who made my school life one, seemingly never-ending, miserable day after another for ten bloody years. There were different sorts of bullying at different times and not all of it was purely physical (it was mostly intellectual during my time in the Sixth Form, for instance) but it was always - as bullying is - upsetting, cruel and emotionally scarring. I'm not fishing for sympathy here, I am not alone in having to suffer this by any means. Not even remotely close. Millions of people have dealt with bullying as a de facto part of their lives and emerged from the experience as stronger and better people directly as a result. I like to imagine, in my more philosophical moments, that I'm one of them.

I rarely think about my time at school these days, dear blog reader and, when I do, it mostly tends to be the somewhat less horrific moments (and there were some) than the time some cretin thought it was, like, the funniest thing in the world, ever, to get me on the ground, punch me a few times and then draw all over my face with a marker pen.

But, back safely in the comfort of all-grown-up 2009, when this guy said his name, suddenly, I was there again. As a scared fat fourteen year old in 1977 in the Walker Comprehensive schoolyard rolled up into a ball and having seven grades of shat kicked out of me by this chap and a couple of his wretched sneering cronies because I'd ... well, to be honest, I can't remember exactly what I'd done to deserve it on that particular day. 'Looked at them in a funny way,' possibly. That was usually near to top of the list for reasons to explain any shoeing I received. 'Worked my ticket' was another one. That was usually verbal shorthand for very occasionally instead of just cowering in the corner and saying 'please don't hit me any more' actually trying to stand up to them and confront their actions. You know, like you're always told that you should when you're being bullied and are confidently assured by parents and by teachers alike that, if you do, the bullies will be unable to handle it and will leave you alone. Because really bullies are all cowards underneath. Well, let me assure you dear blog reader that, in fact, no they sodding well aren't and, mostly, if you DO try standing up to them that will simply assure you of an even greater spanking than the one you'd've gotten anyway.

Suddenly, I saw this guy as he was back then, a wiry teenage skinhead numbskull who seemed to take the greatest of delights in terrorising those less hard than himself. And I flinched. For the first time in probably close to thirty years. I'm not sure if he saw me do it, but I know I did.
So, I merely said to him 'Oh yes, I remember you. How are you doing?' and, whilst he blathered on for a couple of minutes about how he was now working for some insurance company or other and was married with kids, I formulated my 'make-a-quick-excuse about having an important appointment to go to and getting-the-hell-away-from-here' plan of escape. Which I did, subsequently and we left, both of us I think, with fake smiles plastered on our lips. I can imagine him walking away thinking 'Jesus, what a stuck up prick he's turned into. Does a bit of local radio and it's gone to his head. Mind you, he was always a little that way. That's why me and Tony and Jonesy [not the real names of either of the indivudals involved, I hasten to add] used to give him so many chinnings. He hasn't changed.' Or, he might not have been thinking that or anything like it and I'm doing the man a huge disservice. He may well be reading this and be thoroughly shocked by the pain and angst that our brief encounter this morning has awakened in me. He's, possibly, feeling contrite and remorseful having remembered what a thoroughly nasty thug he was when he was young. Or, maybe he's forgotten all of the violence, the taunts, the hurt he inflicted on me (and, I'm sure, others) and is just getting on with his life, quietly, and as best he can, trying to make an honest quid and not hurt anybody in the process. If he is, he has my hope that he manages it. And that his children (I think he said he had three who, I imagine, will all now be in their early twenties or late teens) managed to get through school without, themselves, being bullied. Or, being bullies.

1 comment:

Ian Abrahams said...

The whole Zaavi thing is quite sad, what you say here takes me right back to the years and years we've spent together rifling the racks in the Oxford Street Virgin store... and there's going to be one major whole in the TCR end of Oxford Street isn't there? And possibly one at the other end as well if Borders doesn't shape itself up.
The problem with Zaavi, not totally at the door of Entertain UK though. They were Zaavi's principle distributor, but if they were a viable business model then they could have gone direct to buy stock but nobody would touch them with credit (and when you think that Zaavi were a cash business...). Entertain UK kept going with them on large credit lines because that credit was underwritten by Virgin and it was easier for the administrator to collect from Virgin than try and get the money out of Zaavi. I think it's changing times and not only credit crunch that's happening in these examples - the high street can't compete and entertainment sales are going to channel through the supermarkets and the Internet. Really sad for us rack riflers but I don't see it coming back to the High Street really...