In this third part of my interview with Simon Mason, we talk about how interesting and life affirming it actually was to be part of a tribe. We were mods, OK kiddie mods, borrowing each others two tone shoes and wearing our Grandad’s trilby hats (or maybe that was just me) but we felt we belonged.
Simon is still a pretty decent modernist. While I still retain some of the sensibilities and will always love scooters and Fred Perry, I am a bit lapsed.
We then visit the darkness of his abuse and how it came about.
We start though, with the famous cassette which I gave him and which led him to be a mod. Though interestingly it wasn’t all mod music, The Ruts were on there and The Buzzcocks.
MJ: You got the magic cassette?
SM: The cassette! That cassette you gave me. Do you know what? It’s amazing what you remember, why some things are seared into your memory and some things aren’t. I remember walking past your brother’s room and he’s listening to a cassette player – probably The Jam and he’s got that week’s Smash Hits and he’s learning the lyrics to the song.
MJ: That’s what we used to do at home. We had competitions to remember the words, me and our John.
SM: That memory is so strong.
Where I am right then, I need something, I need to belong. And that’s what I got. Safety in numbers, right? We’re a tribe. We had the whole mod revival thing. You had mods, skinheads, rude boys, rockers, rockabillies, various kids trying stuff out, all crammed together.
MJ: It’s interesting that the tribe thing is dead now. There are very few kids doing that. Everything is so amorphous now and I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing for kids in our society.
SM: No, it’s not. It’s rubbish. It makes me sad. When we live in an age where people think a pair of tracksuit bottoms and Reebok Classics are it. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t even be fucked to get dressed properly, what else are you going to give a fuck about?
MJ: Yeah but that’s it. There’s a slavish devotion to brands now. They’d rather be head to toe in Super Dry. We would look for parkas but it didn’t matter what was on the label. It was the look – get the look right. We weren’t slaves to a brand. It was the opposite.
So you’re starting to equip yourself with the things that you need to get through. You’ve got clothes you’re interested in, you’ve got the music, so you can always take that with you. And then you get abused. At school.
I know you allude to this in the book, but do you think you were just unlucky? Or vulnerable and unlucky?
SM: I certainly wasn’t lucky was I? (Laughs).
MJ: Ha, I mean do you think it could have been somebody else?
SM: It wasn’t just me.
MJ: Well absolutely. In terms of cards being dealt, I think the headmaster I had was totally different, very good in fact. I know that in my bubble, life was different. OK, I got six of the best in the first week and was told not to turn around while it happened. Make of that what you will. For me it was just the pain of that itself, little tiny bits of abuse, I suppose, but not seen as abuse then of course.
So I wasn’t trying to be flippant when I said were you unlucky, just comparing our experiences.
SM: No, of course not. From what I know of people like that and it’s not something I’ve studied, a predatory paedophile is not a snatcher. Not someone who’s going to snatch someone as they walk down a road. It’s kind of thought out. Which makes it even more evil and more despicable.
The sexual abuse really started after my Grandfather died. He’d come to live with us in Weston Super Mare when my Dad was still alive. So I had Mum, Sister, Grandad at home and then Grandad died 18 months after my father. So I’m the only male left in the family.
And that grooming process begins. I’ve spoken a bit about it. It starts with ‘oh come to the office, here have a cigarette’ you know, ‘have a whisky – you can trust me, you’re special’ all that stuff. I don’t think sophisticated is the word but it’s a tried and tested modus operandi for people like that – they pull you in.
You’re looking for a living, breathing role model. It’s all very well having Paul Weller plastered all over your wall but you’re not going to meet him are you? Not yet!
MJ: Little did you know.
SM: You want someone. Someone to say ‘do you know what mate, it’s going to be alright’. Especially when you’ve tried really hard. I’d been in the gymnasium all the time. I wanted to be in the cricket team. I wanted to be in the rugby team. And I was. Simply because when you’re there 24 hours a day, you’ve got more time to practice. I tried really hard.
In the first part of my interview with Simon Mason author of Too High, Too Far, Too Soon, we explored the search for the nadir of his fortunes, his rock bottom. In this second excerpt we explore that a bit further and go on to talk about a devastating blow which triggered the chain of events that would lead to that moment.
Simon Mason Interview Part 2 – Blow it and keep on blowing it.
MJ: So rock bottom isn’t this terrible moment where that’s it and then the sun suddenly shines and it’s all OK. It’s a plateau. Rock bottom and ‘the turning point’ are not the same thing.
SM: No, and there’s an expression that friends of mine use: ‘every rock bottom’s got a trap door’ and I believe that to be true, because things can always get worse. You reach the ultimate rock bottom when you’re dead and for a lot of people by that stage it’s a fucking relief to die. In the same way a lot of people I know would see going to jail as an occupational hazard because it’s better than the life you have on the street.
I think, for me at that point I thought ‘I don’t care, I don’t care’. I didn’t have a kid at that point, everything I’d done I’d fucked up. I’ve been afforded some amazing opportunities in life; I’ve had Noel Gallagher sitting next to me going “Those lyrics are great, you should be in a band”. I’ve had Paul Weller ringing me up, and all this stuff, that if you told a 12 year old me was going to happen I would have said “that won’t happen to me!” And I’d blown it. Blown it spectacularly and I kept on blowing it. And I thought I didn’t care whether I lived or died. Until I actually got to that point where I physically was going to die – me not someone else. And I think it was the kind of spiritual bankruptcy of the thing that did it.
I had this strange, subconscious thing, where I’d always go and seek out someone that in my deluded mind was more fucked up than me. So I’d come out of rehab and start using again and the missus would fuck off – quite rightly so. I’d be scoring on estates in Hackney. I’d have a suit on in a crack house. Thinking ‘I’ve got a suit still! – I’ve got somewhere to live!’ But in Spain, I very quickly sought out the guy that every warned me about: ‘don’t go near him, he’s a fucking lunatic’. And of course he became my best mate straight away. And just before the incident in the bush he said to me “You’re really fucked up”. And then I became that guy.
MJ: You took the mantle.
Yeah, and about a year ago someone sent me a piece in the Mail on Sunday about a British tourist who had been battered, decapitated and wrapped up in an old carpet in Mumbai. And guess who it was?
So I’m in that situation in Spain and I realise I don’t want to die.
MJ: So to go back even further. We were at school together and we had some good times. One thing that I wanted to ask here was prompted by something you wrote recently on your own blog, about being told your Dad had died and two minutes later getting a cuff round the head from a prefect. So I wondered, were you suffering at school before your Dad died? What happened after that key, blistering moment where you got the cuff round the head? What I mean is before your Dad died was it ‘this isn’t that great but I’m alright’ and then the dam burst?
This is going to sound like I’m right up myself, but I re-read the piece yesterday and it’s a lot cleverer than I thought.
MJ: But that’s OK. That’s writing, you’re being a writer.
It’s a lot smarter because I wrote about straightening my back, stiffening my lip, doing that British ‘don’t show them your emotions’ thing. Whereas as a middle-aged man I know now that what I needed was to just let it happen, to collapse and cry. To grieve like my sister and my Mum we’re doing back home together. But I march back into the school – I’m only 11 so I don’t want to afford myself too much intellectual sophistication here – but I think just as a human being you kind of just want someone to give you a hug and tell you ‘it will be OK’ and I didn’t get that.
A few hours later my roommate comes in and says “I’m really sorry about your Dad” and that’s it. Done. I’d like to think that when things like that happen to kids in boarding school these days they are afforded some space. Whereas for me it didn’t happen. You were in that environment, you know that you had to come up with something quick. You had to be funny or good at rugby or something. Because if you’re not…
MJ: …and this kind of my point, because by the time you were in Spain, you were equipped with something. That ability to go to the worst person. Which is a double-edged sword, there is something good about a person who can do that but it is also a path to more suffering. And being in your suit in a crack den too, you always had something to cling to. Did you have that before it started to go wrong?
SM: No. No – because I didn’t need it, because at age 11 my life was Idyllic. I had a Mum and a Dad. My Dad was a hero, he was a pilot in the war. That was the most rock n’ roll thing you could do in 1940! And a few generations back my ancestry is Jewish. So you had this Jewish kid dropping bombs on the Nazis, that’s cool, right?
Fighting Fascism? That’s the dream.
SM: And then I got sent away to this school and I know that my Dad didn’t really want me to go. But my Mum wanted me to and he’d do anything to please her. She knew this other family from Weston Super Mare who sent their kid there. My Dad, like many NCOs after the war became a Freemason. Make what you want of that, I don’t give a fuck, but he did. So we were comfortable. My Mum is from Coventry, so she knew about the school. All my mates were going to the local comprehensive, that’s what I wanted to do, go to the school round the corner with my mates. But I did the exam and I’m plucked out of that world and sent to Coventry, so to speak. I remember thinking ‘What is this place?’ the building was the biggest thing I’d seen in my life. It was terrifying.
And you’re flung together, you’ve got some kid from Mauritius and some army brat, whose family are stationed in Germany and some rich kid. A real disparate bunch of 11 year olds. And the first thing you’re told by the Dean is “There are two rules here, don’t get caught and don’t get caught”. And this priest is having a fag in the dorm in front of us. Different times, right? And you’re left to find your way. And if you don’t subscribe to the school motto ‘Christus Regent’ (Christ reigns), which I didn’t, what are you going to do?
MJ: It’s interesting because I saw it all as a big adventure. But there are similarities. I went in the second year. I had to walk into a common room, where everyone had their backs to me, lads who’d had a whole year to get to know each other and I had to try and break into that group. And maybe it started there but throughout my whole life, I’ve felt a bit of an outsider, a bit on the periphery. But I don’t know what it was in me that made me find adventure in that. I was lucky, maybe it was the way I’d been brought up or the books I’d read to that point. Ha, I was 12!
But again, you know, my Dad died. I’d had that first half term where I’d been crying on the phone ‘Mum I’m homesick’ and then it started looking like it could be OK. We were out in the woods or out at night playing with our torches. It was alright. And then it wasn’t and nothing mattered any more.
I didn’t have books or music or the stuff you had at that point. The music my Dad liked was Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, swing really. It was OK but it didn’t speak to me. My Mum bless her, was straight down the line, a working class girl from Coventry just trying to better herself. So I didn’t have any of that stuff. And then I had that cassette that you gave me…