For two and a half years (or more) of my three years at university, I spent two evenings a week playing in a band that had very few fans. It was a large ensemble - I'm more suited to rock, as 47 will probably tell you, or folk or something that doesn't require a lot of musical talent, like indie pop. My university, however, was woefully lacking in facilities for the creative arts. It didn't even have a society for musicians until my third year, when some very enterprising musical students started one (and a band to go with it). The only way I could play music was by joining this ensemble.
So I joined.
I didn't have much to do. Arrangements of things were sometimes lacking in my chosen instrument, and there were some rehearsals where I played something like eight notes in the first hour or whatever. I developed a meditation technique, sitting at the back of the room with my eyes closed (I was in the middle, at the back, so I was there anyway) and letting the music wash over me. At times, it was magical.
The problems came when I was actually playing. I was nervous, intimidated and aware that I was out of place (I was in a room full of rural Tories and military types; there was one other vegetarian and very few fellow students). I wasn't exactly that bad at my chosen instrument (well, I wasn't great, but I was OK); the environment made me more and more nervy and I occasionally missed my cue or played a bum note - as we all did. I just got picked on for it.
I ingratiated myself as best I could. Went for drinks with the band, got elected as assistant librarian (leading to a memorable evening once with a roll of Sellotape, a whole band's-worth of musical manuscript and Pokémon: Spell of the Unown on the TV for distraction) and offered to take over (redesign, actually) the website for free. As webmaster, I could put my talents to more use, and every now and again, I got faint praise for it.
My section leader hated me. He was an ex-military man with an incredible number of letters after his name, self-serving and shouty and suddenly being asked to share his section with a pacifist vegetarian socialist student. He yelled at me, pushed me aside and, several times, lied about me to make me look bad (or, in more than one case, stupid - despite being a student, he thought I was an idiot). I kept going back, trying to be cool about it and the music being my main draw, but he had no idea about the effect he was having on me. I once ended up in my room, shivering under the bedcovers and talking to my dad about wanting to kill myself because of what he'd said that night.
The conductor started on me as well, and this only continued to get worse and worse, a twice-weekly torrent of verbal abuse, worse than what you'd get from the school bully. I don't know why I stood it - I had no power to do otherwise - but nobody else seemed to want to take him on. I used to self-harm in the bathrooms and go home to scream and hit my head against the wall, occasionally coming out with an intelligent quip that made my friends in the section in front of me laugh, but usually in too much of a tizz to do anything else. He once fired the cornet player on whom I had a crush and forbade anyone to talk about or to her ever again, and out of the whole band, I was the only one who disobeyed, e-mailing her immediately to ask if she was okay and if there was anything I could do.
I was a victim. I know that now, and I kind of knew that then, but I saw nothing I could do apart from quit the band, and I didn't want to do that or I'd have lost my sole creative outlet. And, to be fair, I loved the applause at concerts and the bow I got to take when I played solos. Not every gig was good, but they mostly went well enough.
In my second year, I developed - after a few months of constant abuse and being called a wanker by the conductor - a coping mechanism.
I was single and a university student and by this point I'd amassed a fairly large collection of porn. I had my soft porn DVDs (some of which I still have) and was starting to build up what would eventually make up my Discs of Wonder™. I also had a large room in the share house at which I was living, and for the first time in what seems like ever, I was enjoying myself sexually without fear of being caught. I used to get my release by familiarising myself with my sexuality, occasionally doing the sex chatroom thing or reading/writing erotic fiction - even, at some points, discovering sex blogs in their fledgling forms - but nothing so much as just putting on some soft porn and bringing myself off.
More so than ever, my second year was what influenced my tastes in porn, which continues to this day. I had a handy release in wanking; porn was, for all its flaws, my safe space - where no right-wingers could corner me in the library and yell at me for wearing a white poppy. No ex-marine could hide sheets of music so that I couldn't find them and had nothing to play. No conductor could tell me that I had no sense of rhythm because of being a vegetarian. When watching porn, I was untouchable; invulnerable; invincible. I'd masturbate once before going to band, go and rehearse and be shouted at, return and masturbate again before going to bed.
It was my sweet release, the calming embrace of hand around cock more of a relief than crying it all out or chain-smoking cigarettes like the conductor did. At least, as I reasoned to myself, at least I have something all to myself, something I can control which feels good. And, in those moments, I was doing more for myself than I'd ever done.
In my third year, I returned from a contest to find my housemates sitting in the lounge eating dinner.
"How did it go?" asked one of them.
"We didn't do well," I admitted. "Seventh out of eight. We threw it away in the second movement. Massive confidence knock. I'm not too worried," I assured them, as they blanched. "Contesting's not my thing anyway, There's a real gig next week, that's much more fun."
I took a few chips and a slice of bread.
"Conductor called me a wanker," I said after a few seconds.
"He what?!" said the other three.
"Yeah, well..." I said, as I got up to help clear up. "He's got a point."
And returned to my room, where my porn lay waiting silently for me.