Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Song Of Chance : Part One

There's a group of us, stood around a tree. And under the tree, a middle-aged man in an Admiral Leeds United tracksuit is picking names from a small canvas bag. I'm 10 years old. I'm smiling, trying to look as excited as all the other boys and I'm hoping, against everything, that my name isn't pulled out. I've thought of this moment through all of today's training activities and small-sided games. I've laid awake the night before, hoping, against everything, that my name wouldn't be pulled out. But as the man takes the first piece of paper from that small canvas bag, I know that it's my name that's written on it. He passes the bag to a colleague and unfolds the paper. He grins and looks at me.

'First out. Chris Rainbow.'

Everyone turns and looks at me - jealous looks, lots of muttering, some 'well done's. I glance over at my twin brother on the other side of the group. He's not smiling. He knows what I'm thinking. I haven't told anyone.

'It's ok,' I say, 'I don't really want to do it. You can give someone else a chance.'

The man in the tracksuit goes, 'Eh?'

I say the same thing again, every word, clockwork, confused, terrified.

'Oh,' he says. 'Ok. Right. I'll try again.'

I shrink into the crowd, shame making me small. In a brief moment, in a few words, I had seen my future. Over thirty years later, I remember this incident with absolute clarity. At the time, I didn't fully realise how important it would become, and how, after a lifetime of forgotten regrets, this one would still linger.

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As I've got older, the idea of the fork in the path has grown stronger and stronger. The theme of which fork to take - left or right - is one that re-surfaces often, not only in my writing, but during each day in real life. The fork symbolises a decision. Go one way and a particular course of events will follow. Go the other way and your life could take a totally different direction. We agonise over the 'big decisions' - weighing options carefully to determine the correct path to take. We take the decision and things work out or they don't. But the moment you make your choice, you turn your back on the other path's options forever. By going one way, and not the other, you embrace certain possibilities and exclude the rest. And what the rest entails, you'll never know.

There's a fear in decision making. Nowadays, my fear is of denying myself the possibilities a certain decision can open up - what if I make the 'wrong' choice and miss out? In many ways, it's a positive process. I want to do more, experience more, feel alive. In my younger days, however, the fear worked in other ways. And it started all those years ago when I was 10. When I stood amongst a group of boys on the Leeds United training ground and made my worst decision.

                                                             *          *          *

I've always been a Liverpool supporter. I shouldn't have even been at the Leeds United Soccer School. But our kid was a Leeds fan, Liverpool didn't have a soccer school during the long summer holidays, and so that was that.

And for the first few days it was great. We trained at the Carnegie College, met Terry Connor and enjoyed being away from home for the first time in our lives. Then came the Elland Road tour, followed by the 'special announcement' that was to cast a shadow over the rest of my week. We'd finished the tour and congregated in a section of the stand when Paul Madeley appeared and everyone went silent. We'd seen the ground now, he told us, but at the end of the week, we'd be coming back. The Leeds United first team would be playing an exhibition game against the reserves. However, five lucky members of the soccer school would have the chance to feature in this match. Five young lads, playing on the Elland Road pitch with one of the world's most famous teams. Truely, the opportunity of a lifetime. The names of the lads chosen would be pulled from a hat.

The talk on the coach on the way back was all about this one great chance. But I didn't say anything.

The fear had got me. The fear that I wasn't good enough, that I would show myself up, embarrass myself. And it was this fear that made me, standing under that tree, say 'no.'

And with that 'no' came a premonition of my entire teenage years. Always an outsider - one of the strange kids obsessed with Bowie, The Associates, Julian Cope, The Smiths. One of the strange kids who hardly said anything except to a couple of close friends, who never took part in school productions, never went to parties, never read aloud in school assemblies. A strange kid for whom 'no' was the only choice.

Years later, I've met folks from school who refer to my 'aloofness', as if I thought I was too good to do any of those things. In fact, it was exactly the opposite that was true. The truth was that I believed I wasn't good enough. I couldn't do these things. I took solace in the two things I could do - work hard and run. But even here, the fear curtailed me.
After receiving a school prize for best 'A' level results, I reasoned with myself that this was 'just exams' - exams didn't matter - didn't make me as good as the other kids.
And before the Linconshire Schools Sports Championships one year, I stood at the top of the stairs and thought if I can fall down these and break my arm, I'd be spared from running in the next day's 800 metres race. I was a good runner, one of the best in Lincolnshire, but ...I wasn't good enough.

                                                            *          *          *

I'm happy with where I am now. I sometimes look back on those younger days and smile as I recall the 'teenage angst' - perhaps it's a phase that all of us go through in some shape or other. But I also wonder what would have happened if I'd made different choices - if I'd said 'yes' instead of 'no'. Maybe I'd be infinitely worse off than where I am now. Maybe I'd have got to this place but the journey here would have been easier. Who knows?

But with every fork in the path, the first thing I think of is that day under the tree. And by thinking of this, I hope I'm inspired to make the best decision.

I lay on an unmade bed twelve years ago and weighed up the pro's and con's of making a call to a girl I'd just met on a market stall. I'd had a few adventures by then, but part of me knew that this one would be the most important of my life. I said 'yes', asked her on a first date, and here I am now, happier than I've ever been. Where would I be if I'd convinced myself out of making that call?

So, choosing which fork to take is important. I know that, and I know that for every poor decision I've taken, there's a good one that's been taken sometime else.

And then I get to thinking of how the decision should be made. Head or heart. I tend to go with the feeling - let my heart rule - but this doesn't always work. However you make the decision, the odds are that, in hindsight, half the time it's going to be a good one and half the time a bad one. If that really is the case then a new possibility opens up concerning the fork in the path and the choice of which to take. A possibility that is, at once, exciting and scary but absolves you - the decision-maker - from any responsibility of later success or failure at all.

This revelation I owe to The X Factor. Each year, as the end of summer arrives, I struggle with a decision - start watching the shows and resign myself to 3 months of Saturday nights stuck in front of the tele, or don't bother and do something else with all that time.

The X Factor stands for everything I detest.
Firstly, let's ridicule a group of slightly mentally retarded, vulnerable people in the auditions and wheel out the worst at the end of the series for 13 million people to laugh at.
Secondly, let's focus on someone for whom this is the 'last chance'. Someone who's grafted in clubs for donkey's years, stuck to their guns and never quite made it (maybe because they're simply not good enough). Let's pick them and as the weeks' shows progress watch them sell their souls, lose their uniqueness, hand themselves over to stylists to make them fit the picture, and prostitute themselves by singing cover versions picked for them by mentors who know lots about selling product, creating brands but fuck-all about music.
And thirdly, get some youngsters in who can sing but are more attracted by the carrot of 'being famous'. Let's mould them, use them, make money from them, abandon them, ruin their lives. Young lives destroyed by the men who put stars in their eyes.
I hate all this, but, inevitably, I make the wrong decision. I get drawn in, slag off each show but end up watching the next, all the way to the Grand Final.

It's a waste of my time. I know that. But some good came from last year's dire series. I realised that the judges always seem to make the wrong decision. Alexandra Burke, the winner, releases some so-so singles, but JLS, the runners-up, become superstars. Joe McEldrey, the winner, fades into obscurity after an anaemic album, but Olly Muirs, the runner-up, becomes a house-hold name. Maybe the judges would do a better job if they abandoned the constraints of traditional decision making and just left it to chance. Flip a coin, or roll a dice.

Roll a dice.
The obsession with the fork in the path.
Good and bad decisions.
Which way to go?
Standing under a tree at 10 years old.
What if these decisions were made for me? What if I simply handed myself over to Fate?

The roll of the dice.

I went into the back room and pulled out a battered copy of a novel I'd read years ago on my travels. The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. I flicked quickly through and made one last decision quickly. For good or for bad, I was about to start singing The Song Of Chance. 

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