It’s strange that a song written by a New Yorker about a place I’ve never been can cause such a reverie. The above title was written by Billy Joel, I think it was from Turnstiles, forgive me if I’m wrong, and whenever I hear it, as I just did, then I’m back in a classroom in Wales studying A level English with Mr. Millington. For those of you who’ve read my book – Cross Country Murder Song, Vintage imprint coming soon! – you might have noticed his name in the dedication. He and The Boy (more of whom another time), got both barrels of my love, I managed to catch up and reacquaint myself with The Boy before he died, but I never got to say goodbye to Millington and I’m sorry about that as he truly turned my life around.
It was the mid-80s or thereabouts, Ted was originally from Birmingham and how he ended up in our small, Welsh valley is still something of a mystery. Everyone has their Dead Poets Society moment I suppose and he was mine. All the girls were infatuated by this short man in a duffle coat with a bowl haircut, the boys in the class either loved or loathed him. I wavered between both. He was astute, sharp and funny and seemed to care, which was unnerving at best, my home life was a lesson in abandonment; three individuals trying to hold on the ever brittle strands of family. We were doomed from the minute my father walked out on us. Ted had issues of his own, a son he loved and doted on and what looked like a long dead marriage. A few years later, he and another teacher (she taught Home Economics and made the boys in the sixth form pant like tired bloodhounds) pretty much ran away together. He never did things lightly so it must have crushed him to give up on his family unit, no matter how badly they were listing.
But I’m getting away from how he taught us; with verve and style and, mostly, with heart. He taught us The Great Gatsby at a time when I was at war with the world. I didn’t want to hear about America’s Jazz Age or its most glittering participants, I wanted the land leveled, I wanted someone to pay for the pain I was feeling. Ted wouldn’t give up on us though, he drove Fitzgerald’s brilliant text into our consciousness, taught us the spare beauty of his dazzling prose, he taught us that knowledge is power, freeing too. Mostly he taught me that I didn’t have to stay in that place, both geographically and mentally, he set me free and I don’t think he did it unwittingly. He saw something in me that I must have missed. He saw past the anger and the hurt, reigniting my love of writing and reading, he kicked open a long closed door. It was no surprise that when I got my first tattoo some years later it was the last paragraph of The Great Gatsby around my thigh and it was as much about my love of the written word as it was a man who pulled me from my own infernal wreckage.
He became gravely ill in the same Welsh hospital as The Boy, both beginning their long descent into oblivion from beneath those same sheets. Old school friends tried to contact me for the funeral – an event literally filled with hundreds and hundreds of pupils, present and past – but I was in London then, travelling abroad for magazine work, moving homes, trying to gain some purchase on the world, trying to make my mark. By the time news reached me, he was set resting on a Welsh hillside at the end of his far too short journey. I’m working on my second novel now and had sat down today to write, but not about him or this, I’d almost forgotten a lot of it. But there wouldn’t have been a Cross Country Murder Song without him, hell, there wouldn’t have been magazine articles, memoirs, TV scripts, radio work, I’d have been rotting in my own personal hell, thinking about what might have been, still blaming the world, railing against the picturesque landscape outside, self-contained and always, always confined. Thank you, Ted Millington, my words of appreciation are long overdue.