AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE MEMORY BOX

 

The Memory Box is my memoirs, currently being serialised on Facebook in the Group of the same name, where readers are free to share their thoughts, memories and photos.

 

This resource will allow those not using Facebook to read the text and will be updated periodically. 

  • Joolz Denby

Episode 10

Updated: Nov 25, 2018

I've done many things for a living, some OK, some grim beyond words. I've worked since I was 13, Saturdays and a couple of evenings after school as my parents believed in not giving me pocket money when I was capable of earning it myself. In that case it meant kitchen work in the restaurant at the bottom of our road, opposite the pub. Alongside washing up I did the cleaning, and any other odd jobs that wanted seeing to. The chef was dark, brooding, alcoholic and mental like all chefs, and used to practice knife throwing - embedding quivering blades in the plaster wall by my head as I scrubbed pots, and the delivery men hit on me, one in particular who was old enough to be my grandfather and who used to try and pin me in corners while he muttered about my figure and played pocket billiards. In short, it was a typical catering gig.

I was a hard worker, a habit once acquired that's hard to break. I like to do things properly, even boring scut work like cleaning. But it meant whilst my friends were sunbathing in the park, and going camping on Greek islands - the in holiday for wannabe hippies - I was loading the antique dishwashing machine at the restaurant and dragging crates of mouldy  veg about. I hated it because I felt left out of some of the social life I could theoretically have joined in, but my parents were adamant I work for my living and not become a spoilt only child. Which given my mother was pretty bloody unlikely - this was a woman who made me get up and do housework when I had bronchitis.

I think the worst job, for sheer physical labour, long hours, horrible conditions and low pay was the commercial laundry. It did Domestic and Hospital. That was a low point. It was like a scene from Dickens, the filthy low, dark building, the stink of the hospital contract linens, some bloodsoaked from surgery, the horrible old woman in charge of the floor who screamed and swore at everyone non-stop whilst pushing a huge wicker wheeled basket around and ramming it into your back if you didn't work as fast as she'd like. Everyone who worked there was basically unemployable in any other capacity, from 16 year old biker hippie chick me to my only friend in the place, the transvestite domestic laundry sorter who came to work in red stilettos, black fishnets under their trousers and a women's blouse knotted under their hairy sternum. We would eat our dinner together and moan about boyfriends and the inconstant nature of mascara (the waterproof variety was not yet available) in the 15 minutes alotted for lunch. Men were all faithless pigs who wanted one thing from a girl. All men are liars. The pretty ones are worst, at least the plain ones are grateful. My friend would roll dramatic, big brown eyes in theatrical despair as they recounted daring exploits in the local cottages (public toilets used by Gay men for hook ups and sex). I was not shocked or even bothered by these spicy revelations, as I'd been around Gay men all my life.

My mother, although a complete racist somewhere to the right of Atilla The Hun, had never been even slightly homophobic, which given her views on everything else was odd.  You'd imagine with her deliberately ultra-feminine, yet raging Fascist persona she would have been. But she seemed to view Gay men as not threatening, not rivals, and not 'unnatural perverts' as most of my friend's parents certainly did. Lesbians she despised though, as she considered them homely, unplucked, un-made-up, flat shoe wearing, dog breeding, tweedy 'inverts' a la The Well Of Loneliness who couldn't cut it as real women. Any woman who did sports other than tennis (flirty tennis dresses, frilly tennis knickers) was a Lesbian, in my mother's eyes. The worst thing she could say about a girl was that she was 'sporty'.  As soon as I got really good at swimming and swam for my school, she put a stop to it, in case I turned into a Lesbian whilst doing the front crawl at speed.

From my earliest years when we went up to London, which we did a few times a year, my Dada would nip off to the SAS club, or HQ or whatever and Ma and I  would get a taxi to a pub called the Coach And Horses in a Mews in Kensington where a large, loud, possibly female woman called Queenie dealt in used designer clothes. Whilst my mother tried on a hard up duchess's old Chanel or Schiaperelli I was left downstairs with the pub clientele, who were resting actors or chorus boys. They would pet me up, teach me palare, the Gay slang of the era (ooh, vada the omipalone, naff riah!), do my waistlength hair in elaborate styles, put make up on me and give me Coca-Cola. I would have been about 8 or 9 and thought for years it was perfectly normal for boys to wear make up. I can't say my view has changed really.

Anyway, my laundry lunch pal was the only ray of light in that particular horror of a job and when he left to pursue a career on a cruise ship (so exciting), I couldn't bear it anymore and left myself, going back to my default job of petrol attendant at various garages. A bloke in a Rolls once gave me a £50 tip. That was a huge amount in the late 1970s. I was stoned for months and bought a pair of bean can heel cowboy boots from Sacha in Leeds.

When I moved into the mildewed glory of 166 with X, I had to pay my way like everyone else and ended up getting a job as a Life Model at Leeds Polytechnic. I'd done stints of Life Modelling for artists before because unlike the prudish Yorkshire girls in the area (except for Big Betty, the only available model for some decades), I did not mind getting my kit off for money. I didn't mind getting my kit off at all, really. Whilst not madly naked like the hippies, my parents had not been particularly bothered by nudity either. If anything, accidentally catching sight of my giant father's naked arse was considered humorous rather than shocking.

I didn't have any false modesty about nudity. Or any kind of modesty really. I have never considered myself a beauty. I don't totally hate the way I look, even now, and there are, as with most people, things I like about myself and things I don't. I have nice hair. I have nice feet. Can't say I care for my ankles, that kind of thing. But I seriously don't think the sky will fall in and I'll be chained to the promenade railings as a public spectacle if I sunbathe in a bikini or naked, where appropriate, whatever my age or shape. People will stare at my tattoos. They may, during that gawping, notice I have stretch marks, cellulite and I'm fat. I do not give a tuppenny damn. If they don't like looking at me, they may direct their attention to the sea view.

I will say though I'm generally clean and personally tidy. One thing about being brought up by a semi-pro Beauty, is that there's nothing about beauty culture, hair and make-up I don't know. This was compounded by my mother insisting on treating my mundane teen acne as a medical emergency on a par with Bubonic Plague, and my being send to various Dermatology consultants from whom I learnt a great deal. Basically, I was made aware from my earliest years that Society views women as a work in progress, unlike men who trot fully formed and largely unaltered from womb to tomb, blissfully ignorant of mani-pedis or the intricacies of hyralaunic acid nanospheres encapsulated in a Mongolian Peony extract matrix in anti-aging creams. There's a kind of bizarre, inadvertently comic poetry in beauty industry product descriptions, especially since it matters not a jot what you grease your face with because if you smoke, drink alcohol and don't wear sunscreen you'll end up looking like an abandoned leather handbag with a cat's arse mouth whatever you do in the way of illuminating serums.

I was given facials alongside my mother when I was 10 and she started dying my hair a 'more interesting' shade of copper with Hint Of A Tint at the same time. I was made aware that as I could never compete in the beauty stakes, so I'd better develop an ability to listen and smile. These are indeed useful skills, and have held me in good stead, but meant fuck all when I was an acned depressed teen with zero self worth and attachment issues. And that's the point. I didn't form the disastrous relationships that have studded my life like dried peas in a pilgrim's shoe because I thought I was hideous. They happened because I thought I was worthless, stupid, tedious and annoying, all the lessons my mother taught me, along with how to put false eyelashes on properly and the best way to file your nails. My looks were nothing in comparison to the yawning abyss inside me. I didn't give a shit what I looked like. It didn't matter.

But I know my body. I accept it. I may well wish sometimes I'd been genetically gifted with an Instagram Fitness Model's figure...But I haven't. Along with 99% of the population. I'd rather have working knees than a smaller nose if the Body Fairy was doing wishes. Being a Naked Model bothered me not a whit. Especially when I quickly realised I could draw very much better than most of the students, and some of the lecturers, and could earn tips by redrawing pictures by students of myself in various states of ennui so they'd get a pass mark. Which I did. Foreshortening and feet are a mystery to most art students.

Of course like most people I worried in a desultory way about my weight, and still do. My mother had dieted me like an adult from my earliest years in an attempt to thwart Nature and get herself the petite little doll of a daughter she'd wanted. But Nature will not be manipulated, no matter what you may want. Every bit of food I put in my mouth was calorie counted and Ma dwelt long and hard on my fatness and my thick, muscular twisted legs. She offered me a nose job for my 18th birthday as she thought my nose 'Jewish' - her racism was across the board - but I chose a fashionable heavy silver ID bracelet instead. She couldn't have me sugically modified, so food was how she could both control me and get her revenge for my failing to comply to her ideal.  When I got with X, I was made to understand my curves were not an attractive quality and liking decent  nourishing food was an hilarious decadence. He and my mother, whilst agreeing on literally nothing else, certainly agreed you could never be too thin and that nothing tastes as good as thin feels.

Because of this unceasing emphasis, my relationship with food has always been somewhat uneasy and it fell apart entierly twice. One when I was about 15 and I found I could live on only an apple and some Kleenex every day and starving wasn't hard when you got used to it. Everyone congratulated me on my weight loss as though I'd won the Nobel Prize. For Anorexia, presumably. I finally got out of that only to succumb again in my 30s. Again, there was nothing but praise for my - given my frame - extreme thinness. I was congratulated and told how great I looked. Actually I had long known the dark secret of dieting. It doesn't change how you look. You just look like you, but less. If you're short with short legs, you're just thinner and still short and stumpy. You don't magically change into that leggy, tanned, golden haired swimsuit model in the magazines. I looked like me - tall, broad shouldered, wide hips, long arms and legs - but painfully, horribly thin with my eyes  on either side of my then very prominent nose like a googly wedge. I only stopped starving that time because my tattooist, Micky Sharpz Lewis, not a man to mince his words, instead of joining in the chorus of wow, you look amazing, so proud of you for dropping the weight, said shortly I looked fucking ridiculous and I should eat a fucking pie. In a strong Birmingham accent. It gave me a jolt not to have the universal praise for not eating I'd grown used to. What the fuck, I thought and I ate the pie. I continue to try and eat the pie and not calculate the calorific value.

None of this emphasis on the physical made me self conscious about not being beautiful. I'd accepted in childhood that could never be. Instead, I would look interesting. Eccentric, even. Unforgettable. Sally Bowles, as played by Liza Minnelli was a great influence. David Bowie, and of course, Marc Bolan, that coruscating little glitterpixie in girl's dolly strap shoes. If I didn't suit fashionable girl's clothes from fab boutiques, I'd make my own clothes and be a twinkling star in the social firmament of Harrogate. I expect I mostly looked bonkers, but I loved it. When I was a biker, my outfit was bang on point, in a casual don't-give-a-fuck way - the exact right Levis, the perfect faded t-shirt, the exquisitely distressed Lewis Leathers jacket. When I was a Punk it was all edgy androgeny in military cast-offs, diamanté chandelier earrings and dayglo hair. I played the style field as if fashion was an all you can eat buffet and one that had zero calories at that.

Modelling in Leeds paid the bills but it was tiring work physically - you try standing between two easels holding on to both simulating the Crucifixion for 4 hours. At the end of that one I couldn't feel my hands or fumble the money out of my purse for the bus. Mostly, unless you're one of those fetishists who get off on being naked, in a contorted position whilst being stared at by gormless students, and there are people like that, life modelling is monumentally boring. You may be laid down, in a warm room, but you can't sleep in case you move, fart or dribble. If you had a heavy time the night before it's like being tortured by sadists who force you to stay awake. You spend the day in your dressing gown and slippers though, which is plus. As it was Leeds, so very cutting edge and pretentious, us models sometimes got co-opted into being the audience for Performance Art, such as Marc Almond's final year show. Despite Marc being rather a down to earth, very pleasant guy in real life, on the Drama Room stage that afternoon he became a Diva of legendary proportions, giving his All to the Muse. We were employees, so not allowed to giggle. Terrible coughs we all had, though. Shockin'.

The problem with the job for me, and others, is that hours of immobility allows you to brood. That's never great, especially since I was depressed, abandoned by my family,  just having left a whole other life behind and living with X who though having had dialled down the whole running off to Mexico to live in bliss with Conchita or Blanca or whoever, still had issues. Mostly in the form of Gav, the bass player.

I don't know if you've ever been in love with a person who loves another  incredibly thick person who knows your loved one loves them,  but only sees that as a lever for personal gain and a power trip, but if you have, you'll know it's very, very tiring. And really shit. What most people either never understand, or find inexplicable, or refuse to grasp, is that love comes in a myriad different forms. Even in family relationships it's as completely individual as the people involved, never mind in non-family relationships. I've met many men who'd have been a lot happier living with their best mate forever, had it not been for the fact they didn't fancy them, ditto many women who whilst not Gay, would much prefer to live exclusively with other women. I've known Gay men who have genuinely loved the women they married and had children with and I've known women who spent their lives trying desperately to fit into the marriage or partnership Society says they should be in. I've known utterly devoted married couples who didn't have sex with each other and people who could only connect with another person through sex. Love is the most powerful and random thing in the Universe and the truth is, you just can't pick who you fall in love with. Also, falling in love itself comes in a thousand different forms. X loved Gav. It was a bro-crush of colossal proportions. He worshipped Gav's god-given talent and wanted to protect and support Gav, so he could attain the stellar heights his amazing musical ability demanded.

There was one problem in this idealistic dream. Gav. Gav himself was the problem.  He was a galactic joke: that someone could have that huge a talent and have absolutely no understanding of it, or see it as anything other than a means of getting admiration and money, is truly devastating to watch. Why him, you wonder, why not someone who at least loves music for its own sake? What was god thinking? God was obviously up on his throne bloody rolling about with laughter as Gav gave yet another pyrotechnic display of pure talent with his trademark expression of slightly malevolent smirky blankness.

However. My aim was to get the fucking band up, running, and keep it going for the rest of X's life. If that meant coping with  Gav, so be it. I didn't feel bad or guilty about not bonding with him, because he loathed me on sight as a huge, unnatural wierd freak in the shape of a woman. A woman! Who worked for the band! Crazy!What do women know about anything real?  And a woman who took X's attention off him for ten seconds. That was the unforgivable bit. Despite having disliking each other in common, there was one thing we definately differed on. Gav was in the band for Gav. He was incapable of understanding it was a team. The concept was meaningless to him. I, on the other hand, was working for the band as a complete entity, a complex organism that would be the carrier for X's brillant songs. I couldn't secure X's future without securing all the other musician's futures too. It was all for one and one for all...

And Gav. Sitting on the sofa with his stiff, stylised gelled curls and absolute inability to comprehend what he was involved with.

It was going to be a rough ride.


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© JOOLZ DENBY - ARTIST - TATTOOIST - WRITER - POET - BRADFORD, WEST YORKSHIRE, UK - JOOLZDENBY00@GMAIL.COM