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Morecambe - Coming of Age

Jayne Sharratt

I went to a school where reputations were built on how often you could distract the teacher from anything resembling work..

Emma found it. The first copy of the 'Catcher in the Rye' I saw was a hardback, fading yellow and old. It didn’t stand out in the shelves of the school library, amongst the brightly coloured socially aware novels, or the optimistically placed classics of the last century, Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist. I like to think it had lain undisturbed for years before we discovered it.

We were fifteen and as part of our English class we had to choose a book a week from the shelves in the corner of the room, despite the direness of the collection and the fact that we thought we had read anything good it had to offer years ago. So picking a book generally meant spending as long as possible lurking behind the shelves until our exasperated teacher ordered us to return to our desks, then grabbing anything. Now I know that the 'Catcher in the Rye' is a school text, a classic famous enough for even my illiterate brother to have heard of, but at the time it came to us fresh, without any preconceptions. I remember the disappointment I felt when I found I could easily buy my own copy in any W.H. Smiths. We thought it was our own illicit secret.
"You have to read this book!" I don’t think anyone has ever recommended a book to me with such excitement or enthusiasm before or since. It was passed from one to another, most of us reading it in one night. Then we would want to read it again, but whoever had been promised it next would be demanding to have it. For the first time in my life it was cool to be reading a book without being forced to.

I went to a school where reputations were built on how often you could distract the teacher from anything resembling work, and how much cider you could drink round the back of the cinema, not what you read last night. Reading was something I pretended I didn’t do, but really it was all I did. It was my private escape, but this time I was sharing it. I discovered the powerful hold a book could have over people. I doubt we could articulate why this book excited us so much, and I can’t recapture it now. All I can do is repeat what Emma said; 'You have to read this book'.

Mostly I recall that Holden Caulfield drew us right in from the very first line and held us to the last page. He pretended he didn’t care about anything, but he did. Holden talked about sex, without ever doing it. To me 'The Catcher in the Rye' is a novel about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Kicked out of school for failing four out of five subjects, Holden decides to take a few days in New York before his official day for arriving home. His narrative is bleak and depressed, reflective of the disillusion he feels in the adult world of sleaze and hypocrisy. He constantly wants people to think he is older than he is, particularly in his encounters with barmen and older women. At the same time he is resisting joining an adult world he sees as ‘phoney’. Asked what he wants to do he sees himself as the protector of childhood innocence. ‘I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in a big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.’

The book spoke to me exactly about the frustrations I felt with an adult world I wanted to join, and my confused attempts to find a place within it. At the end of the year when we had finished our exams and left that school, four of us went camping for a weekend on the coast near Morecambe. We took 'The Catcher in the Rye' with us. I don’t think we drew any parallels between the book and ourselves, but in my mind the weekend was at a turning point in our lives, marking an end and a beginning. It was a space of two days without adults when we could do whatever we wanted to. The weekend stretched longer than normal time. Much of what happened was inconsequential, but we attached significance to it all, and thought all our conversations profound. All the time we tried to seem older than we were.

On the first night we walked down the cinder track to the beach, discussing who we wanted to go out with and who we would have been if we had been a member of the Famous Five. I remember the glow of the sands in the shadow of Heysham Nuclear Power station. On the second night we bought bottles of fortified wine from the newsagent in the village in varying luminous shades. Mine was electric blue. Unable to down it as ordered, I surreptitiously poured most of it into the grass in a corner of the tent. We put makeup on in the campsite shower block, and decided to walk to the pub down the road. The distance was much further than we thought and we arrived at a shop half way almost lame. There, Emma, with her dark Spanish-like eyes attracted the attention of two men, probably in their late twenties. In the pub we told them that we were all nineteen. Leeringly they pretended to believe our lie with a wink, and an eye on the landlady. They suggested we went back to their house with them, and they bought cans of lager and a bottle of Taboo for us on the way.

The hot day climaxed in a thunder and lightening storm as they showed us the short cut through the woods. I imagined our alcohol soaked tent being struck and going up in a ball of flames. At their house we all poured increasing amounts of Taboo into our lemonade, except for Sarah, who poured more and more lemonade into her Taboo. One of the men told me that he had two children, but both their mothers had court orders banning him from seeing them. I said,' oh, that’s nice', feeling light headed and lost for words. It was time to leave, so they ordered a taxi to take us all to the Palace on Morecambe seafront. Converted from an old theatre, the first club I entered had several floors around what was once a central stage. Here the Taboo seemed stronger than ever. Feeling that there were ulterior motives to getting us drunk I displayed more sense than I have ever done since and consistently poured the drinks handed to me over a plastic palm tree. With hindsight this is the best way to treat Taboo and lemonade. In the toilets Tina gathered us together. She considered herself to be the most worldly wise since she had been threatened with suspension for bringing a bottle of diamond white into school, and smoked spliffs at weekends. She sternly reminded us that the men had paid for our taxis, club entrance and countless rounds of drinks. One of us would have to be sacrificed. Either that or we had to lose them as quickly as possible. We decided to lose them and spent the rest of the night dancing on another floor.

The need to dodge our former friends added to the adventure. We collapsed sometime around two am, exhausted and happy, to sit cross-legged on the floor and share a Coca-Cola from the bar, all we could afford. We only left when the club closed, and got a taxi back to the campsite. I wasn’t a bit like Holden Caulfield. I came top of my class. I was a bad liar. I thought I was being rebellious if I folded the waistband of my grey pleated school skirt over a few times and put my tie on back to front. If 'The Catcher in the Rye' influenced me, it showed me that I didn’t have to be good all the time. I was a lot happier because of it.

© Jayne Sharratt

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