Although I loved the city of Liverpool I found the university itself really boring. What helped me stick it out was mixing with ordinary people. In my first year I had hung out on a building site – there was too much drinking and fooling around to say that I actually worked. I was one of the few students with the opportunity to get to know working class Liverpudlians, or Scousers, and this felt like a privilege.
In my final year I worked as a travelling salesman for Canongate Publishing, a struggling publishing company that my parents had set up in 1974. My job had started out as a challenge by Dave, a bearded Australian roughneck, who always had a rollup sticking out of the side of his mouth. Dave was in charge of distribution which meant he spent his days wrapping up books and muttering at anyone who walked past. When I told him I was studying history and politics at Liverpool university he laughed:
– Liverpool! They’re illiterate down there!
– How can you say that?
– There’s not one bookshop in Liverpool!
– But I’ve been to some really interesting bookshops in Liverpool. There’s an interesting one called News from Nowhere…
– Humph. Well they’ve never ordered a single book from us!
One thing led to another and I ended up working as a book rep for them in Liverpool. I bought a silvery suit from an Oxfam charity shop for two quid and a plastic yellow bag, with Kodak branded all over it, into which I could fit plenty of new Canongate books, most of which were by obscure Scottish poets. My training consisted of Dave reluctantly showing me how to use an invoice book.
The bookshops in Liverpool did buy from me and I was delighted to be sent to sell books in another unknown area of the map – south west England – where I honed my camping skills. By day I was wearing a suit and driving a decrepit old Vauxhall Viva that I had bought for £200, and in the evenings I would change into jeans, carry a rucksack, cook dinner on a petrol stove and sleep in a waterproof sleeping bag on a beach. I loved the idea of opening the boot of my car and changing from a besuited sales rep into a backpacker.
The final year of university dragged on and I couldn’t wait to make my grand escape. I had a flat in the centre, in Toxteth, and my routine was fairly nocturnal. When I went to lectures I tended to fall asleep, and during one particularly boring seminar I fell asleep as I was talking.
We were limbering up to leave university. Big companies and public institutions came to make fancy presentations and size up the best students. This was called the Milk Round and my friends saw it as the logical next step, the obvious way to plug into a career. The idea was to choose what branch of industry suited you and friendly career officers would give advice. The top spot was diplomacy but you needed a First in your finals just to get an interview. If you weren’t sure what to do with your life you went for accountancy and the lowest of the low was sales. The secret intelligence services were recruiting too; they hired the biggest ruffian I knew, an alcoholic brute of a rugby player, on the basis that he was studying Russian.
I had my own plan: I was going to hitchhike to Shanghai. At the university’s Careers Office they weren’t impressed with this; China was unknown to them as a career destination as it was under hard-line Communist rule. They said that good jobs in the financial sector were available in Hong Kong – still a British colony at the time – but I had been a mathematical disaster area in school so that conversation didn’t go anywhere. But they did come up with one useful suggestion: perhaps the People’s Republic of China needed English teachers? The address of the Chinese Embassy in London was located and I wrote them a letter.
The Chinese Embassy wrote back, confirming that they needed English teachers and asked me to undergo a series of blood tests and fill in a massive form. This is my big chance, I thought, surprised at how easy it was all turning out. I went to a local clinic and the nurse was amazed at how many different blood tests the Embassy wanted but she proceeded anyway and filled up five different syringes with my blood – until I passed out on the chair. The embassy never replied to my application but this just made me more determined to get to China.
There was also a political angle to all this. Much of the northern hemisphere was under Communist control at the time: the map was red from the China Sea to the Adriatic and I was attracted by the fact that this red blob on the map was considered a dangerous no-go area by most people I knew. I wanted to get away from the comfort and security of bourgeois life and get a job without the assistance of my parents’ good reputation. Every job I had had until then was due, in some way, to family influence and I wanted to prove to myself that I could get a job on my own. My grandmother was a Conservative voter who hated Socialism and Communism and all things left wing. Anyone who votes Labour, she would say, should go and live in Russia. That will show them what it’s like. When I was a kid this kind of talk would scare the wits out of me but later on it was an inspiration.
At sixth form college in Edinburgh my politics teacher had been a true Communist and he converted me to look at the world through the prism of Marxism. Although the effect didn’t last very long – how can you hand over absolute power to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and expect them to share it? – it did encourage me to go and see what it was like to live in a Communist country. Marxism is a useful analytical tool for seeing the world from the perspective of the underdog; it helped me understand it better and build-up my confidence to explore.
One of my best friends at University was a Northern Irish charmer called Peter Morgan. He studied architecture and only came to life at night. His room was on the ground floor of a student block near the best pubs in Toxteth, the city centre area that became synonymous with the 1981 riots. Drunken friends would knock on his window at all hours of the night and he used to say he hated being interrupted but whenever I showed up he was keen to chat, drink and smoke. One night he taught me what it’s like to experience fear.
I knocked on his window after a late night boozing session and he invited me in. He was drawing with intensity on one of those huge draughtsman tables that can be moved to different angles. There was a single anglepoise lamp that lit up his work but left the room in darkness. I saw a tube of lip moistuiriser and rubbed it on my lips. Pete’s face suddenly dropped and after a long pause he spoke:
– Did you use my lipsalve?
– Yeah. So what?
– You shouldn’t have done that.
– Why not?
– Have you got little cracks on your lips?
– Oh dear. You know I’ve been away a lot recently?
– Well, I haven’t told anyone yet but I’ve been diagnosed with AIDS. I’ve been getting intensive treatment for it but I’ve not got long to live. I also have little cracks on my lips and I just used that lipsil. That means I’ve probably passed it onto you. I’m really sorry Rupert.
I stood there in the dark and the silence for what seemed like an eternity as his words sank in. I was going to die. I didn’t have long to live; a year, maybe two, perhaps just months. How long do people with AIDS survive? It was a newly discovered disease at the time and the media used it to put the fear of God into my generation.
I was overcome with fear, as if I had been hit by a train. I could see my life flashing by. My body became instantly weak and I couldn’t stand up any more. I wanted to projectile vomit across the room and the contents of my bowels felt ready to burst out onto Pete’s floor. I was gripped by terror, frozen to the spot and it took all of my energy to focus on one simple task: to lie down on the floor and try desperately to control my body. I was wrestling with an overwhelming feeling of panic that I was about to die – not in six months time but right now. Marijuana can contribute to these feelings of panic and I had smoked several joints that evening.
I felt as if I was lying in my grave. Gradually I accepted the fact that I was going to die and I realised I must stand up and deal with it: I would face the last days of my life like a man. The feelings of uncontrollable sickness passed and I stood up and faced Pete, shook his hand solemnly – as if for the last time – went home and lay in bed wondering what I should do with the time I had left. By now I had found a sense of calm and had the wild feeling of fear under control. The next few days passed in a blur. I couldn’t think of anything special to do with the rest of my life and neither was I ready to tell anyone; I knew they would react with horror and make a big deal out of it. I just wanted to ignore it and get on with my life.
A few days later I ran into Pete and he casually told me that the whole thing was a wind-up: he didn’t have AIDS but he had got a lot of laughs out of convincing me that I did. He had told our group of friends and they were all smirking at my strange behaviour.
Pete knew it was a cruel trick but I was grateful to be alive – I felt like he had given me a new lease of life. To move from the fear of death to the knowledge that I could live my life to the full was a powerful and liberating experience.
Sometime later Pete drove up to Edinburgh in a hired car. I met him in a tiny village just outside of Edinburgh called Nine Mile Burn where I had been living in a cottage, writing this book. We had agreed to meet on the Edinburgh road and I was going to guide down a narrow track to the cottage. By the time he showed up it was dark, I got into his car and we started chatting intensely.
Suddenly he turned into a huge field, stopped chattering and stepped on the gas. The grass was wet and he pulled on the handbrake, spun the steering wheel and went into a long skid that seemed to go on forever. I was used to his reckless driving and knew that he was quite competent behind the wheel. It was unlikely that he’d take us through a drystone dyke and, even if he did, a spot of bother with the police was exactly what he needed.
Then he stopped the car and asked if I would like to drive. What young man can resist an invitation to drive a car recklessly? So I stepped out of the passenger door to make my way round to the driver’s side. Then he zoomed off, leaving me standing alone in the darkness. What’s this all about? I wondered calmly. Pete reached the far end of the field, turned round so the headlights were pointing at me, stopped and gunned the engine. I felt like I was in a bad movie but there was no script, director or stunt coordinator.
He started driving towards me and built up more and more speed. One option was to run to the edge of the field but it was so far away that I couldn’t even see it. I would stay exactly where I was and jump out of the way at the very last moment. He was getting closer and closer, faster and faster, still heading directly for me. I didn’t panic; my mind was calm and adrenalin was keeping me alert.
When the car was just a few metres away Pete steered to the right. But he was going too fast, the grass was too wet and the car didn’t steer as he wanted. It started to skid directly towards me. I waited until the last possible moment before moving and, when the time came to run, I slipped and fell on the wet grass. The car made a whooshing sound as it passed by my legs. He missed me by a matter of inches.
The car came to a shuddering halt not far away and Pete got out. He was ashen-faced, shaking and kept apologising. He realised that his prank had almost resulted in his friend getting killed and this really shook him up. What haunted him most was the idea of having to tell my mother, with whom he got on really well, that he had killed her son. He was surprised that I wasn’t upset but he was so angry with himself that what good would it have done? There was a certain satisfaction in seeing Pete being humbled by his own recklessness.