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Frank F

In conversation with Christopher Whalen

Joie de Vivre

I wish I was a tidier person. Maybe if I tidied up my room, I’d tidy up my life. I remember after the trouble with my girlfriend Anna, I went up to see Mike, who lives upstairs. I said, “Mate, my life’s in a state.” He said, “Right, Chris, go and tidy your room because it seems that’s the problem. Look, we’ll spend fifteen minutes and then we’ll be done.” He came down to my room and said, “Oh. My. God.” It took the two of us an hour, but the room was immaculate afterwards. My mum hates the way that I tidy my room. Anna hates the way that I fold her jumpers, or make the bed – I’m really crap at doing things that are perfect. I hate the nitty-gritty things. I’m a perfectionist ideologically; but in reality, I’m so far from it, it’s stupid.

I met Anna working in Blockbuster’s. I think it was the first shift that we were put on together and there was this other girl that was working there. I had chatted to them before, I think, but in the end it just became this sexually charged atmosphere. I found out from the other girl that Anna quite fancied me. It was maybe two hours of friendship before I asked her to come into the storeroom because I had something to tell her and kissed her!

I’m in quite a transitional and confusing stage in my relationship, I’m coming to the end of my degree, I have a blurred idea of my future – these are all things that I sit up all night worrying about. Last year, maybe, I felt like I had the world at my feet; this year I’ve still got the world at my feet, but…what maybe has changed is a fear of closing doors: when you’ve got all those doors open to you, that’s why things are blurred; if you close any of those doors, it’s a scary process; at the same time, having all those doors open is also quite scary because you don’t know which one to take. You’re taking responsibility for your life; there’s no one else that you could blame for that.

The love that I have with Anna – because it’s been three years – has changed into a love that is very comforting; it’s not the love that changes from day to day; there’s nothing immature about it. Anna fits me: in the sense that everything works when I cuddle her. She has this cream that she puts on. I describe her as being made of maple and pecan pie – that’s what it smells like. My own smell is a very smoky, woody, peaty smell. I also like pulling out knots in her hair. It drives her to distraction! I think that if I didn’t have Anna around – even in the background – I’d feel incomplete. At the same time, looking back at the sense of excitement that I got from romantic ideas of love…it’s frustrating that I’ve lost that a little bit. I still articulate it in quite an immature way. I say that I love her, I text, and I buy little presents. Anna did this thing for me the other day: she found a piece of chocolate that had some ginger hair on it and so got it because it looked like me. That’s an articulation of love that’s really small and quite sweet. But then it’s a bigger, “I was thinking of you,” type of expression as well. Since I’ve come to Oxford I’ve found it harder to express this bigger type of love, despite feeling it. When I first came here, Oxford was the new and exciting thing – I suppose we went through a courting stage of me and Oxford…I’m more of a priority than I used to be.

The biggest challenge that I run away from is relationship…problems. I bury my head in the sand and hope that they go away. I don’t really deal with problems and just try to forget them. I forget them quite easily and quite well. I don’t know if they do resurface, but it seems to work for me! In a relationship I run away from problems because they just piss me off! The problems can sometimes be over-analysed or extended too far beyond what the actual problem is. I do try to address some problems straight away. This is one of the areas where I stand my ground a little bit more in relationships. If you allow your opinions to be walked over then the whole thing fucks up and your life can be changed.

I wish I could be more courageous by saying what I felt – not all the time, but not holding back in relationships. Recently, I actually spoke to Anna about the relationship that we were having. I’d bottled up any unsettling thoughts and feelings because I wanted to hide them and ignore the fact that things weren’t going right. It was something I’d churned over in my head for months, but never really had the inclin- …I don’t know. It did need to be said.

Anna’s quite good at expressing difficulties. I think that’s one of the things I found difficult, and one of the things I said to her: the fact that she kept on trying to break up with me was not indicative of a perfect relationship! What she was trying to do in breaking up with me was just trying to get me to express myself. I have got better at expressing myself with her recently; it definitely makes things run smoother.

One of the things that Anna found very frustrating about me was that I just wouldn’t think. It’s not that I try to do something wrong; it’s just that I wouldn’t think to do something right and end up doing something wrong.

***

Probably one of my most formative experiences was when I and one of my best mates of the time were going after the same girl, and I got her in a backhanded way. I didn’t tell him about it. That’s one of the things that I regretted the most. We fell out because I lied, really. In recent times, we’ve spoken a bit more. It would have been really cool to have stayed in touch. It’s also a guilty conscience: it’s me fucking up my own value system.

In the past, I’ve had to deal with people making snide comments about me. When I was younger I got…it wasn’t bullied as such…well, there were certain people who kept making snide comments. That made me feel really shit. Eventually the way that I got over it was by giving decent banter back. And now, actually, the guy that I can remember doing that to me, we meet up in Birmingham. Now I think that Brumminess and ginger hair are two things that characterize me, as a sort of caricature, and really like that people can take the piss out of those things that to me are completely insignificant: it means that any real faults are passed over.

I’m not a particularly envious person, but there are times when I can be – it sort of creeps up on me. It’s with people I’m very close to: it’s just little things that they’re good at that I’d like to be good at – like acting or academia or social interaction. I’m occasionally envious of my brother – just because he’s younger than me, he should be less cool than me! Although he can be quite shy sometimes, for stupid reasons, he can do great impersonations of people and he’s a great singer – I’d love to be able to sing – and he wears good clothes and takes care of himself and stuff. I try to stop it from coming out in anything nasty, but I just sometimes have to stop myself.

***

I travelled round Europe by myself and went to Lebanon with the rugby league team, so Morocco was the second Arabic country I had been to. There’s a complete difference in culture and a self-dependency that you have to have while you’re out there. I want to immerse myself in a culture that is quite alien to me and one that is probably more spiritual, in a way. My mum’s just become a born again Catholic, she’s become a lot more spiritual. But spirituality in my friends, in my community, in my family tends not to be foregrounded – not that I have any ambitions to become particularly religious. My sense of seeing things outside of your immediate context is really important.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “talk to every woman as if you loved her, and to every man as if he bored you.” My best friend’s actually pretty effeminate. A lot of my friends have a homo-social masculine bond with each other, which I’m a part of. That bond is perpetuated by carrying on masculine ideas – you’ll take the piss, you’re drinking, you’ll do stupid things – but at the same time, there’s a real sense of loyalty.

In the bar with friends

A good time with friends can be getting absolutely off your tits and male bonding, a drunken session that ends goodness knows where. You do know you’re having a good time; but it mirrors on a larger scale what would be having a good time without all that bravado: just a few mates sat round having a chat. Of course, when drink gets involved, things are more…lubricated! There’s a bond that comes through, whether or not you realize what’s going on. At the same time it can end up really crap when you end up in a club that you have no wish to be in, spending money for no good reason. I don’t particularly like clubs anyway, so I tend to go home early.

Friendships: it’s really important to inculcate them. Even time spent strengthening bonds that are already there is time that isn’t really wasted. I’ll say that to myself; but I’ll also say, “You should be fucking working!” There’s no need for me to be sitting till the early hours talking to the last person that goes out of my room. That’s just how I am…but needn’t be…but like being. That process of going away is quite difficult for me because it’s rejecting whoever you’re there with; and lingering is a way of showing them that you do quite like them. Perhaps if you just said goodbye ten minutes before you actually needed to go...

***

I’d like to be courageous in making decisions. I still haven’t taken my life into my own hands, and that takes courage. You need courage to say “no” to something.

I like to lead in a particular and acceptable structure: on the rugby field, or within a drinking game, or in academic discussions, which are all quite confined. I’ll follow in more amorphous areas like “What are we going to do tonight?” I’m not fussed. In relationships, I often take my lead from the other person, which I think Anna found quite frustrating. I’m an awful dancer!

A lot of my priorities come from myself. But my dad has perhaps the biggest influence on my priorities. Say for example, I’m rugby league captain: I actually turned that down a couple of times; it was my dad who was absolutely desperate for me to take it. It was his idea that I take every opportunity that I got in Oxford. I’m glad that I did take it. I think the idea of making my parents proud, at the same time that I can look back at my life and say that I’ve achieved…something…is I suppose where my priorities come from. I suppose success would be juggling a lot of things whilst still achieving – and also maybe being recognized for it as well.

One of my major disappointments was not getting into Oxford first time, but the way I coped with that was not accepting my second choice offer and going for it again. At school I wasn’t really recognized for rugby: I was in my social group, and even at county level; but the schoolmasters didn’t make me captain and I wasn’t Head Boy, I wasn’t even vice-captain. I’m scared when you don’t have the opportunity of a second shot at it, such as a degree or a relationship – and I’ve failed in certain aspects of that…I think I was quite confident of getting a place at Oxford on my second attempt…I think that I had messed up my interview more than anything. Having said that, looking back at it now, I didn’t do great in my A-Levels. There must have been a lot of uncertainty, actually. I do tend to block out things that are problematic.

***

My mind comes more alive in conversations than it would do otherwise. I’ve just had my academic reports sent back from my English tutor, Emma, and she said that my greatest academic skill is being able to evolve ideas in discussion – ideas in motion. What I find frustrating about written work is that I find it difficult to get that sort of motion I have in my head on to a piece of paper. Conversations for me can provide real sparks and a great way for thinking. The ones that I enjoy the most are one-on-ones. In an academic discussion, my ideas are in motion and I absorb an awful lot from other people. My ideas are in no way concrete. I’ll often have half-formed ideas that are changed by what other people say. I take a lot of what other people say to heart, particularly if I can see a way of amalgamating that with the way that I see things. Perhaps that’s why I want to work in the Foreign Office: I’m diplomatic, I do listen to people. I always try to take the middle road. I get so het up about people. The only thing I’m intolerant of is intolerance. People, for instance, who would just go into a shop and just rant at a shopkeeper or the shop steward or whoever because “this isn’t right” or “that isn’t right” or “you sold me this” – I could never do that because I could always see their point of view.

***

I went to a really good school. My family have always been really supportive of me. My dad’s stories of himself – coming from the worst area in Barrow – have always been formative in my desire to do well. We’ve never been on a family holiday abroad. Things have always been quite tight. At the same time, my parents would spend money on my brothers and me, and nothing on themselves.

I feel at home this year in Oxford with my friends. I feel at home, at home in Birmingham with my family, just doing ordinary things like sitting around watching TV, having a drink with my dad – or not having a drink with my dad: since one of my friends came round, I’m not allowed to drink in my house any more! Sitting watching a video with Anna, or just snuggled up. Or throwing a rugby ball about in the park with my brothers. On a rugby coach on the way to a match; or more particularly, on the way back from a match! I’d love to make somewhere else, like Morocco, feel like home – in the same way that I’ve appropriated Oxford and an area in London where I stayed for quite a while just with Anna – same with St Austell, where we used to go on family holidays in Cornwall. It’s great having little areas that you can go to and have memories from. Going to a different country and having a different culture that you can kind of call your own – like Anna did when she was in Brazil – would be great: a sort of accomplishment.

***

“Maybe a family is just a group of people that miss the same imagined place.” (Zach Braff’s film, Garden State)

***

I’ve stayed at home my whole life and because I’ve got an eleven-year-old brother, home, even though it has gradually changed, has still stayed quite the same: changed in the sense that I’ve left it and we’re all growing up. It’s not as if there was an imagined time or space in the past that home was, because home is. All those experiences that have happened in the past, whether you choose to see them as being part of your imagination or not, have all formed the concept of home that is now and exists. In the future, when my parents are dead or the actual the physical house isn’t ours any more, then that might be a space that lives in the imagination; but as it is, it exists for me.

At home, my mum’s in control. In the domain of the home, you are controlled, and space away from that is quite often desirable. The space I want right now is more of a psychological space – a complete freedom and irresponsibility whilst you are young and you can have it. So I do want a bit of privacy away from the million different things that I’m juggling; but if I got it, I’d probably get a bit bored. I think I always need to feel I’m busy so that I’d doing something towards success. But what I want to do is so indistinct. I do lots of things instead of focusing on one – so simplicity would be great.

The love I have for my family is just ingrained. We’re the sort of family that says, “I love you,” all the time. That’s partly stemming from the sort of reticence that my grandad and my father had, and he doesn’t want to have that with us. Love has never been questioned. I’ve taken that into more sexual love, I suppose, in that I’ll articulate feelings of love. When I was younger, I was your typical romantic – writing poems and considering everything to be the most important: every lover, every prospective lover, everything that I might fancy.

Strangely, out of some bad times with my parents, there have been amazing moments: like when I went out for a beer with my dad – it was actually at my grandmother’s funeral and we were staying away from the rest of the family in a B&B. He said how proud he was, how he couldn’t have got through some difficult times without me, because I’d looked after him and my little brothers. He said that the way I dealt with that inspired massive respect. I’ve spent loads of great moments with my mum. When I was young, and even now, when there’s a murder programme on TV, we’ll sit down and watch it together. I remember always when I was young, reading my poems to my mum because my dad would think they’re all a bit gay and mum would actually listen and be interested in them.

***

“Cleaning a school at hometime”

I would love
really dream of
some posh nosed
toffee voiced vulture
   approach with their
inevitable saunter
sneering at me
and make some
   comment.

And I would
   carry on sweeping
just to make us
    both feel better.

***

My mum didn’t talk about her childhood massively. I remember one time when we were on holiday and I took her for a cream tea – in fact, I seem to do that a lot on holidays with my mum – and chatted about how things were when she was young. I’ve got a really good relationship with both my parents.

***

I’ve always got a fear of getting older, that the best years are behind me. That’s why The Kinks song “Days” always gets me: it’s a celebration of something that’s beautiful in the past. There are a few songs that can move me to tears when I hear them and that’s one of them. It expresses the sense of the loss of youth: that sense of time going by: loss and celebration at the same time.

***

I do like having my own space. I don’t like depending on people, but I find that I do depend on people quite a lot. In the sense that the grass is always greener, I’ve always craved more space for myself, I’ve always craved to be alone; at the same time as giving in to more social whims of mine. I’m quite prepared to ask people for favours or for things; but also quite prepared to do things for people without them asking.

In a purely philanthropic sense, I don’t think I do enough for others. The other day I was walking to Sainsbury’s and I bought a Big Issue on the way there and on the way back I gave the guy I bought the Big Issue off a box of mince pies. I do little things for people, particularly in social ways, things that I can afford to do. The real limits of my compassion are perhaps when what someone else wants or needs really affects my long-term aims. It’s not something that I ignore, but I don’t put myself out massively for others. Maybe I don’t think about it enough. I can be really quite selfish. When I was in my first year, I remember meeting a guy on the street and chatting to him at night and half had it in my head to invite him back to my room so that he could sleep there for the night, and ended up not doing it – for lots of different reasons: partly because I didn’t really trust him, or could put that trust on to the college.

It takes quite a lot for me to feel lonely. My remedy for it, if I do feel it, is to romanticize the feeling of loneliness. I’d wallow in that sense of being alone. The last time it happened was when I went up to Manchester for the Grand Final. I was with two guys from university, going to watch the rugby league and also promote Varsity rugby league. We went out to a club afterwards, and it was just after Anna and I had started a break. That sort of physical distance between Anna and…me…meant that even though I was with these people in the club, chatting and laughing, but then seeing them off trying to find girls when I had no inclination to do anything of the sort – that made me feel lonely because it was both physical distance and a kind of psychological distance. As the train stops on the way back got closer and closer to Oxford, I was feeling the complete opposite of what I was feeling up in Manchester and needing my space again!

***

After I’ve seen Morocco, I’d like to live in the English countryside with a river nearby, or on the seaside. I would like to meet somebody…who I can’t even…crystallize…who might change my life – I don’t know. I don’t know. What do I need for my life to feel complete? It doesn’t feel complete now. I’m not particularly materialistic, but there are particular things that have got massive sentimental value, that I would feel just a little bit incomplete without: my grandma gave me a Rosary ring and I have that on me inside my grandad’s wallet whenever I take exams; the watch that my parents bought me; little things from Anna: that book of photos that she made me for my 21st birthday; one of the two pens that she got me for our anniversary (I lost one of them and I’m still fucking gutted about that). I keep lots of things to pass on to my children. The reason Anna made me that book was because I didn’t really have any photos from my time here in Oxford. It’s a book of memories. I’m a really sentimental person, and have that book so that I could give it on to my children and say, “That’s what your dad looked like.” Or, you know, “I might be old and grey and nodding by the fire, but I was…I was with your mum” – or whatever – “That’s her” – even if it’s not Anna, then it’s like, well, “There’s a picture of me there when I played rugby at the Varsity match.” It’s all those things…It’s proof of my life, isn’t it?

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My mantlepiece
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December 2004