Blog: Andrew Graves

A youth centre in Mansfield was where the poet could channel his inner Lizard King, wear his grandma's blouse – and ultimately learn to become the successful artist he is today

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I’ll admit it couldn’t have been easy being Jim Morrison. Calling yourself the Lizard King, flirting with the occult and wearing tight leather trousers could tend to piss off the established order, even in 1960s LA at the zenith of the pop cultural revolution. But doing it in 1980s Sutton in Ashfield, a dilapidated pit town, at the back end of the miners’ strike, where the idea of Breaking Through to the Other Side, was an alien concept, was a lot harder.

It’s tempting to say I was brave when I went swanning around the flea market in a PVC catsuit, full of supreme confidence that I was going to become the next big thing, convinced that my daily diorama of Cheapest Cigs in Town Shops, bookies and discarded Fine Fare shopping bags would only ever be a temporary setting.

The fact is though I was probably a bit of a bellend. Miraculously, I was never beaten up. People were just too worn out trying to dodge whatever crap Thatcher was lobbing at them that week to bother about me. It was true that my home town had had the legs kicked out from under it one too many times but to call it a cultural desert would have been unkind. After all most of us would have welcomed a bit of sun and sand.

The thing is, though I had the shiny black strides and back-combed hair, I still didn’t have anywhere where I could actually be a rock ‘n’ roll star. Preening myself in the window of Martin’s Newsagent didn’t count.

I needed to find my equivalent to Morrison’s Whisky a Go-Go. I may have been a million miles away from sunny LA but I was only a bus ride away from not so sunny Mansfield. That’s where I found the Westfield Folkhouse.

To many, old memories of youth clubs conjure images of rundown council buildings or draughty church halls, noisy places of decrepit-looking ping-pong tables, wonky plaggy chairs, cheap chocolate bars and filmy cups of tea that only came in polystyrene cups. I have these memories too but. for me, my particular youth centre, the Westfield Folkhouse, became something much more than that. Despite being situated in a place ravaged by closure and the dismantling of the factory system, it was a safe space to stretch my burgeoning artistic endeavours.

The adults at the Folkhouse were different. They didn’t necessarily see what I wanted to do as a waste of time

Unlike the X-Factor-style stories of today’s prime-time telly, I received no encouragement from my immediate family. Pursuits I was interested in were viewed by most adults as being pointless and a waste of time. I should after all have been spending my days applying for all those jobs that didn’t exist.

Yet the adults at the Folkhouse were different. They didn’t necessarily see what I wanted to do as a waste of time. Importantly, they didn’t always see that what I was doing was any good either, but crucially they did give me a place to do it in, as amateurish as it was.

My first ever gig was at the Folkhouse. For it, I wore one of my grandma’s blouses, make-up and a huge crucifix. I thought this would make me look avant-garde. Unfortunately I didn’t really know what avant-garde meant. Neither as it happened did the ex-miners who turned up to the performance expecting Whiplash Mascara (my band) to be some sort of female strip act. It was a narrow escape and the last time I ever wore fishnets in public.

Eventually, I gave up on the idea of being a rock star. I ended up being a youth worker. It was an important part of my life and even when I left the profession to become first a teacher, then a full-time poet, it always remained so. Vitally, that youth centre had been a necessary space for my younger self, a working-class kid who didn’t have a clue how to be anything apart from the one thing that everyone was telling me not to be.

It became my study, my theatre, my band venue, mine. It was not a gateway to a bigger world as such – more one that felt smaller, a place away from the overwhelming largeness of having to fit in. It kept me warm when I was freezing, homed when I was homeless and fed when I was broke. It allowed me to be stupid, vain and incomplete and let me know when I was better than I ever knew I could be.

I needed a place like that.

Jim Morrison never knew what he was missing.

Andrew Graves: God Save The Teen produced by Renaissance One is at Leeds Library on 9 March

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