‘It wasn’t that research intensive,’ Kevin Sampson told me in Liverpool. I’d gone over to him at some literary event in the tunnels and brought up the book of his I’d just read, a novel called Freshers about student hijinx in Sheffield. In all Sampson’s books there’s this relentless focus on a single aspect of Northern life – Ibiza Uncut style holidays or football hooliganism – which is rendered almost verbatim on the page. For a guy who had to be in his forties, Sampson caught the pace and flow of student dialogue with exactitude. Freshers centres on a young man whose life is full of sexual opportunity that he’s unable to enjoy because of his crippling performance anxiety. ‘It’s just about a lonely boy,’ Sampson said.
Like Leeds, Sheffield is basically a long road with pubs, restaurants, estates and council buildings added here and there. Ranmoor Hall is about an hour’s walk from town and buried in forest and suburb. The rumour was that it used to be a woman’s prison. Sampson doesn’t mention this in the book and he gets every detail of Ranmoor right except one: the rooms, back then, were indeed little more than prison cells.
It’s difficult to describe the angles and spaces of buildings when you write and hard to imagine them when you read. Think of a laundry room, seven or eight stories up. You climbed out of the laundry room window onto a flat roof around fifty feet from the ground and eight feet down from the main roof. You couldn’t climb straight up onto the main roof from this platform, I think it was a flat wall that curved up into some kind of dome or turret, so to get on Ranmoor roof proper one had to stand on the edge of the platform and lean right, on a diagonal. If you were the first one up – I don’t believe I was ever the first – you had to grab the edge of the roof proper and lever yourself up, legs kicking against the wall. Then each man could be pulled up by whoever had made it.
On the summer of our fresher year we got into the habit of getting drunk and going on the roof, and it’s this memory, drinking bottles and cans and chatting and laughing with the treetops in reaching distance and sticky gravel underfoot and the world ahead of us (even more than the mad in-jokes and catchphrases that still raise a smile if they drift into my head: ‘Whilst you’re up, chap,’ ‘Bwa-HA!’ ‘My name is Michael Ballack. You can call me… Michael Ballack,’ – that one was always done in an Irish accent for some reason – ‘It was the monkey’, ‘Hrrrr, say me,’ ‘I often have a donor kebab from Northern Sole,’ etc) that endures more than any other of those three years. Of course it was exam time by this point and we woke up a lot of people who needed sleep for exams, and we were rousted and ordered to see some kind of Ranmoor disciplinary guy the following day.
I still remember sitting in this guy’s office as he told us that normally we would be thrown out of halls for this kind of thing but since it was so near end of term he would settle on a fine. The Ranmoor disciplinary guy said, in a soft and precise tone: ‘When you go on the roof, you’re looking for trouble. And when you look for trouble, you generally find it. And in this case, that trouble’ – significant pause – ‘is me.’ The man sat with his back to the window, and at this moment I noticed, over his head, my friend Red – who had somehow avoided being discovered on the roof – capering around and pulling faces at us through the glass. I still say that maintaining a serious and sober expression was one of the hardest things I had ever done up to that point.
The point of all this self-indulgent bourgeoisie reminiscience – god, the cray-zee nights we had back then – is that I would never contemplate getting up on any roof today. The kid on the roof is someone with a lot of mad ideas and a ridiculous tolerance for alcohol and with no real coherence of thought or self-discipline or work ethic or consistency of action – but also someone without fear. I used to fly to Europe with my family as a kid, and later on my own to Amsterdam several times a year, and on occasion I’d stay up partying all night and then get a cab to Schipol to fly back without the fear that imagination gives you. I would be terrified to get on a plane now, even though I know it’s the safest form of travel, simply because it has occurred to me that I could be afraid. Now, going to work or going out, I find I need a totally clear head or else I feel afraid (it’s the creepy loss of intellectual clarity that makes hangovers so bad, and I imagine this is the undercurrent of old age, the narratives and thought patterns that make up a self fragmenting, as our thoughts and associations fragment into a radiant nothing in the seconds before we go to sleep). Life becomes more and more about the maintenance of the perfect headstate. Life hardens you and breaks you at the same time.
I will fly again though. I will fly to America. Just as long as I can get about twenty hours sleep the following day and carry a book that centres me in the world and smoke a cigarette directly before departure. And as long as I can get a drink on the plane.