Monthly Archives: May 2014

Dear diary…

Just Write 19th May: Diary

It’s impossible for me to write the words “dear diary” without it calling to mind “Heathers” which remains one of my all time favourite movies. So many brilliant lines (the clip above has at least two belters in 90 seconds – “are we going to prom or to hell ?”, “my teen angst bullshit has a body count”) and wickedly funny. However, this post has nothing to do with “Heathers” other than the fact that my writing class this week was concerned with diary entries as a potential route in to creative writing.

Starting with the homework from the previous class… We were tasked with keeping a diary for the week but I didn’t do that, or didn’t do that quite as briefed. Inspired by the session on first lines from a fortnight ago I decided to just do an opening line for each day. This in no way reflected the fact that I had left the whole thing until an hour before the class began. No way. Don’t dare insinuate as such… Here ’tis:

Tue 13

I’ve kept a diary since I was 13 and know days that aren’t worth recording: today is one of them.

Wed 14

My new boss fixed me with another stare and leaned in close: “I was a combat soldier for 10 years so I’ve seen people struggle with similar things”.

Thurs 15

“The bomb disposal team are now investigating the car” intoned the voice over the tannoy as we descended another flight of stairs, walking past a sign that ominously declared: “no refuge beyond this point”.

Fri 16

A lovely surprise as one of the bands I had blogged about shares my post on their Facebook page and my blog stats go berserk. (By berserk I mean I get about 200 views in the week which qualifies as berserk relative to my usual stats.)

Sat 17

It doesn’t matter how long I’ve lived here, riding up The Mall in the back of a black cab, watching Buckingham Palace recede through the rear window, still feels magical: like the opening credits to your own movie, the script as yet unwritten.

Sun 18

Nikki is claiming she will never drink again; I am silently congratulating myself on ducking the cocktails in favour of a humble beer.

Mon 19

Decide to start my homework two hours before it’s due which, if a diary is supposed to be an insight into character, is a pretty telling insight. Spend some time debating with myself whether it’s technically cheating to just write first lines for each day in a cunning attempt to splice together the task with something we were doing in the last session. Spend so much time debating it that a first line becomes as much as is realistic in the remaining hour.

I actually thought this worked out pretty well although it helped that some genuinely interesting things happened to me in the week – notably being evacuated to the sub vault of the Bank of England during a bomb scare. Perhaps I should try a one line diary over a longer period of time.

The class itself was a really enjoyable one with a nice mix of character profiling and some subsequent writing based, in part, on the diary idea. The character profiling involved writing up some basic details that we associated with a couple of random selected photographs: name, age, significant others, enemies, current problem etc. In so doing myself and my partner for the exercise came up with a slightly convoluted story about two Americans – Dr Chuck Brody and Charlie Wright and Chuck’s struggle to be honest about his sexuality. It wasn’t entirely serious and wound up a bit like an episode from “Days Of Our Lives”, the soap that Joey from Friends stars in as Dr Drake Ramoray. Anyway, part one of the exercise was a diary entry from, in this case, Dr Brody, about one of three scenarios we were given – in our case, fortunately, one of them was “having an affair” as we’d already made that part of the story up in developing the characters ! Part two was supposed to be more of a show-don’t-tell piece of prose just after the moment at which the affair had become known to both parties. Make of it what you will:

Trouble again today, I can’t keep this from Charlie for much longer. Met up with Milton as planned, the usual pretext for Charlie – we’re just catching a game of tennis after work. Went to that new place down town, La Scala. Figured she wouldn’t know, besides I think she was trying to sort things out with Grace tonight. But Leyton was there. Man what are the chances ? He saw us. We spoke for chrissakes, I made something up about double booking the court but did he see how close we were ? It’s not so strange, two guys catching a bite to eat and Leyton’s met Milton before so why am I freaking out ? It’ll break her, this on top of the custody battle. What was that joke she keeps making ? You’re number two Chuck, this has gotta work out – I can’t be a divorce lawyer with two divorces on my watch.

……

Leyton called the waiter over to get the cheque and then froze, fingers raised in the air. It was Chuck and Charlie. He was about to turn his raised fingers into a wave to attract their attention but hesitated. Charlie had quickly taken her seat leaving Chuck standing, a puzzled look on his face. She had already picked up a menu, raised in front of her face like a shield. Chuck sat down opposite her and studied the table in silence. Hadn’t he seen Chuck in here last week ? With that guy ? Milton. That was him. They’d been sat together, maybe poring over some documents he guessed, shuffled up close so they could both see. He’d said hello but they’d seemed offhand and Chuck had dashed off. Strange he was back so soon, he must have rated this place. Charlie was still buried in her menu but, briefly, it lowered as she let it slip from her fingers. It was hard to tell across the room but Leyton could’ve sworn she was crying.

As mentioned it all came out far soapier than planned. I think we’d set up a comedy (even with daft name gags – Milton Keynes and Leyton Buzzard) which I then didn’t really commit to in what I ended up writing so it sort of fell somewhere between a not very funny farce and a not very convincing drama. Ho hum. Lessons learned… and I guess that’s the point.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Just Write, Monday 5th May: First lines.

I have been a little remiss in posting updates following the last couple of writing class sessions so I’ll try to redress over this post and next to cover the 5th and 19th (we didn’t meet on the 12th). As my first line suggests we spent some time a fortnight ago covering, ahem, first lines. From a relatively straightforward prompt – man and woman meeting for the first time – I had:

She only realised she was still alive as he pulled her dead husband off her.

“I can’t believe it meant that little to you. It’s me, Sophie !”

“Hi, are you Michaela ? Thanks for filling in – I usually throw the knives from here but just relax, I’ll let you know where to stand”

Notably none of them will be troubling this post’s title as killer openings (typing this up I note that I’d scribbled “it is a truth universally acknowledged…” in the margin of my notebook, possibly as inspiration, possibly as an ironic nod to the limits of my efforts). However, I don’t entirely hate the slightly gloomy first one and the last one works alright in a light, knockabout way.

The main exercise expanded from a prescribed first line and, as usual, involved a quick five minutes of free writing. Opener was “why did you do that ?”

“Why did you do that ?”

“I don’t know.” I was pleading now, an urgent catch in my voice. My head was swimming and I tried to slow everything down, tried to make sense of it all.

“Come on !” he barked. He’d been growing ever more impatient, striding around the small holding cell, and now he leaned in close. “You must know Mr Reynolds. You do know.”

Silence hung between us. He didn’t move away and I held his gaze for fear that to look away might hint at guilt, might give him further cause to doubt me. Eventually he strode back across the room, his back to me.

“You withdrew £200 Mr Reynolds, on each of your three cards. Yesterday we have a witness statement that says you bought a new mobile phone but you were still in contract on your old one. You erased the contents of your hard drive.”

“I just don’t know…” I trailed off.

“And today, Mr Reynolds, we pulled your wife out of the Manchester canal. So I ask again: why did you do that ?”

I am tending to find that I’m producing work outside of the class – either as part of the homework or unrelated – that I’m more satisfied with and this wasn’t an exception. I like the discipline of being thrown a start point and having to produce something but it’s rare that it produces anything I’d necessarily keep. In this instance I was reasonably happy with the mood of the scene and the premise was okay (man genuinely not aware of what he may or may not have done despite large body of evidence against him) if not especially original. I suspect, however, that a terse, tight thriller is not going to be my calling…

I love you, would you marry me ?

34. Slaveship – Josh Rouse

Ten years ago today (as featured at this link here in the 42) I was fortunate enough to marry my wonderful wife. We had been a couple for close on five years prior to getting married but I had known that we’d spend our lives together within a few short weeks of us getting together. When people had enigmatically responded “you’ll just know” to the how-can-I-tell-if-this-is-the-one question I’d never really understood it until, a little like magic, you do “just know”.

And the process of being married, of sharing your life, of being as much in love now as you were at the beginning, is all about uncovering new truth. New to you at least, it’s a path well trodden by those lucky enough to have experienced it. I was struck, in that spirit, by one of the readings that we had at our wedding. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about love and writing, if not much about naming sonnets, is not an uncommon wedding reading. It kicks off by directly and playfully referencing the marriage service itself – the call to anyone knowing of any lawful impediment – before reflecting on the constant nature of love:

SONNET 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle’s compass come; 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

What struck me was how little I think I understood that sonnet ten years ago in comparison to now, how much richer and how much more valuable love is when it has been tested. Not tested in the sense of feelings becoming uncertain or wavering, quite the contrary – tested in the sense of life’s adversities being faced down by two people utterly unwavering in their commitment to each other.

My wife and I (to borrow a line guaranteed a cheer in any Groom’s wedding speech) have enjoyed a wonderful ten years together. We have laughed a lot, retained a shared love of many things (big American DVD box set dramas, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, country & western, wine), and respectfully disagreed on others (asparagus, football, the merits of video games, eating meat). We’ve raised – or started to raise at least – a smart, funny daughter who makes us proud every day. Even on her worst days. We’ve made a home in a house that, had you asked her ten years ago, my wife would have point blank refused to live in. We still haven’t plastered the artex ceilings. We have built and share a life.

We’ve also, inevitably, dealt with our fair share of stuff that you wouldn’t parcel up and label as fun. Surgery, job loss, more surgery, baby with bronchiolitis, buying the wrong house, madness, further surgery, the cancellation of Firefly, and a bunch of other surgery. Don’t get me wrong, this is just life and, by many, many yardsticks we’re very lucky. It’s just life – it’s just that sometimes there’s been so much of it all at the same time.

That’s when you understand “an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests, and is never shaken”. You don’t understand that stood atop the aisle surrounded by family and friends. Sure, you listen to the words and nod and smile but you don’t really get it. You get it when you’ve stood firm through a few tempests – if not quite to “the edge of doom”.

There’s a brilliant piece of literary criticism on Sonnet 116 dating back to 1936 from Tucker Brooke:

[In Sonnet 116] the chief pause in sense is after the twelfth line. Seventy-five per cent of the words are monosyllables; only three contain more syllables than two; none belong in any degree to the vocabulary of ‘poetic’ diction. There is nothing recondite, exotic, or metaphysical in the thought. There are three run-on lines, one pair of double-endings. There is nothing to remark about the rhyming except the happy blending of open and closed vowels, and of liquids, nasals, and stops; nothing to say about the harmony except to point out how the fluttering accents in the quatrains give place in the couplet to the emphatic march of the almost unrelieved iambic feet. In short, the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language and the two simplest rhyme-schemes to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection. (Brooke, p. 234)

I love this piece because it recognises entirely that the heart of the poem, its power and meaning, can not be pulled apart through an unpicking of the mechanics of the verse. Has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection. What a wonderful line. In exactly the same way I can not fully articulate the power and the meaning in my marriage through a straight articulation of the facts: we met, we got married, we bought a house, we had a child. There is a common thread running through those dry facts, a simple but strong stitch that binds them: love. The star to every wandering bark; the fixed point in the sky that guides our vessel home.

There isn’t an easy way to wrap ten years married, fifteen years together, in a single record. Shakespeare gets closer than a song – did I mention he knew a thing or two about love and writing – but this isn’t 42 poems, 42 years. The nearest thing through our time together to “our song”, I guess, is this mildly daft, quirky, fun, light-as-a-feather piece of pop that Josh Rouse put out on his fantastic “1972” album. I don’t think we necessarily both love it because we’re also mildly daft, quirky, fun and light-as-feathers, though at our best we are all of those things, but it does seem to carry some of the essence of what makes us tick as partners. We love some terribly serious and intellectual stuff too but, if I’m honest, putting on this record is far more likely to put a smile on our faces than breaking open “The Complete Works…” and having a quick read through of the Bard.

It remains a privilege each and every day to be married to the best person I know. This post is for her with all my love, always.
……

Citation:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 116. Ed. Amanda Mabillard. Shakespeare Online. 8 Dec. 2012. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116detail.html >.

References:
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Tucker Brooke. London: Oxford UP: 1936.

Blue Sky Falls

A quick post to show off some rather fine musical swag that arrived over the weekend. I recently signed up to become a “patron” for the new Sweet Billy Pilgrim record which is all pretty exciting as I’ve never patronised anything before; you may insert your own gag about how patronising I am here.

So the deal is that, for the princely sum of £85, you get a signed vinyl copy of their last album (the Mercury nominated, bloody marvellous “Crown & Treaty”), a CD of unreleased music, a hand written set of lyrics to a song of your choice, a pair of tickets to an upcoming gig, and a copy of the new album when it’s finished. There’s a £500 version where you get a private gig in your house which I would love to have stumped up for but the subsequent divorce would have cost even more. More details on all of that here at their website.

SBP loosely hail from Aylesbury (what is with Aylesbury bands and crowd sourcing – has Mark Kelly been running workshops ?) which, in a bizarre way, has always made me feel a certain affinity with them beyond the fact that I love their music. So my £85 was for anyone trying to create something in the Chilterns; be it them, Marillion, or Bill Drummond plotting his latest art experiment. Of the three I figure SBP will probably use the money in the wisest way – Marillion don’t need it so much and Bill might burn it.

I guess the cost, pitched some way above the usual price of a new album, might raise a few of your eyebrows. But what’s a song worth ? If you asked me to put a price on Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” or Merry Clayton’s vocal on “Gimme Shelter” or John Squire’s solo at the end of “I Am The Resurrection” or the drums at the start of The National’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” then I would struggle. I have paid money for all of those records so I can tell you the cost to me in buying them but the £10.99 (or whatever it was) doesn’t come close to expressing their value to me.

It’s a question that I asked myself again last year when SBP offered up “Crown and Treaty”, for free. It seemed – still seems – mildly ridiculous to me that something so lovingly crafted and brilliantly executed could be mine for nothing. In particular the closing track, “Blue Sky Falls”, a gorgeous, fragile slow burner, is worth more than that surely ? For each and every time it has lifted my spirits as I picked my way across the countryside separating Amersham from Milton Keynes, driving to work, for each and every moment it has spoken to me of escape, every time that layered, building, intertwining “oh my god” harmony at the song’s climax has raised the hair on my neck and pulled a smile to my face, for all of those times it’s worth rather a lot more than nothing.

Here it is in all its glory:

So £85 seems like fair redress to me. Besides: behold the glorious swag !

Lightly tapping a high pitched drum

33. Less Than You Think – Wilco

About three years ago, over the course of a weekend, I started experiencing the sensation of fullness in my ears, as if I was sat on a plane endlessly circling whilst it waited for clearance to land at exactly the altitude where pressure builds in the ear drum but you can’t release it. When that sensation abated I was left with a faint fuzzy white noise in my left ear, mostly noticeable at night when everything was still and quiet. It was the start of tinnitus and it has never gone away since. I’ve kind of given up thinking now that it ever will.

My tinnitus almost certainly arose as a symptom of dysfunction in my jaw joint (if you find the place that the two parts of your jaw join you may be surprised just how close to the ear it is). To cut a long story short I was a serial teeth grinder and clencher which, over a sustained period, had effectively forced my jaw to try and compensate for a loss of height in my teeth by sliding into a new position. Finding this out was a mixed blessing I guess – my ears themselves are fine, this wasn’t tinnitus induced by loud noise (as per the infamous Pete Townshend example here) – but the underlying problem turned out to involve quite a lot of pain.

Or maybe I should put that another way. Quite a lot of low level but continuous pain. Nagging discomfort in my face, down my neck, sometimes into my shoulder, sometimes up to my eye socket. Nothing that stops me in my tracks but enough to distract, to act almost as a permanent stop on properly relaxing, or properly being present in any given moment. It kind of takes over, or at least it did for a while. Even writing it now I feel kind of whiney, there’s a part of me that keeps saying “ah just get on with it, there’s plenty worse off than you” and whilst there’s a deal of truth in that it’s undeniable that living with constant pain profoundly affected me.

It’s not coincidence that shortly after this all started that I suffered my worst period of depression. Not the twitchy, slightly hyper anxiety of recent months but just a numb withdrawal from the world, a dislocation from everything because it had become too overwhelming. Neither are much fun to be honest but if you made me choose I’d probably settle for the anxiety over the depression; an over stimulated fight or flight response at least means you still have some fight. I went through a period with no fight whatsoever: I think I’d just had enough.

Around the time that the tinnitus started I listened to a lot of Wilco’s album “A Ghost Is Born”. I particularly remember listening to it on the way to and from my frequent visits to a specialist dentist near Marylebone who helped (for now at least) realign my jaw (the problem being temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ for short). I’m a long time fan of Wilco, not quite from the “A.M.” days but I had second album “Being There” shortly after it came out, but had struggled a bit to find a way in to the somewhat more oblique “Ghost Is Born”. There’s melody and songs but there’s dissonance and noise too. It’s not the Wilco record you’d take home to meet your parents unless your parents were Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.

At the time I don’t think I knew a huge amount about Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and song writer, and certainly didn’t know the circumstances surrounding the recording of “Ghost…”. However, listening to it repeatedly it seemed fairly obvious to me then – and definitely now – that the record had pain as a theme running pretty centrally through it. Not even, funnily enough, necessarily in its lyrical preoccupations but it’s just sonically jarring: there’s almost a constant thread of background distortion and regular slashes of noise. In particular, towards the end of the record, is “Less Than You Think” which starts out as a sombre, quiet thing, Tweedy mumbling about “your mind’s a machine, deadly and dull” before shortly collapsing into a twelve minute drone; a background hum punctuated with pulses and whistles and clicks.

It’s not a comfortable listen but it is a stunning attempt, I think, to capture the essence of constant pain through music or sound. It resonates very strongly for me as a straight articulation of tinnitus, of my TMJ problems, and of depression. To be honest I don’t listen to it that often anymore, I find the early part of the drone quite raw now – in fact I’m sat listening to it now and it’s physically uncomfortable. Takes me back to a time and place that I don’t really want to revisit albeit I think that sometimes, in seeking understanding, that I should.

More recently I’ve dug a little into Tweedy’s history and it transpires that, as suspected, “Ghost” had a difficult birth. He has suffered most of his life with migraines as well as anxiety and depression; he believes the former was probably a manifestation of the latter. Whether some of my physical issues – teeth clenching and grinding – have been manifestations of something psychological over the years I don’t know but there’s definitely a temptation to conflate the two. Tweedy ended up addicted to pain killers before getting clean, this record was written and recorded just before that happened, so pretty much at his lowest point. There’s a long piece that he wrote himself for the New York Times (link here) on his health issues which is well worth a read, from that here’s what he says specifically about “Less Than You Think”:

In particular there’s a piece of music — “Less Than You Think” — that ends with a 12-minute drone that was an attempt to express the slow painful rise and dissipation of migraine in music. I don’t know why anyone would need to have that expressed to them musically. But it was all I had.

He also says this on the role music has played for him as a buffer against pain and depression which largely captures, I suppose, what writing the 42 has been about for me:

On a creative level being able to play music and disappear into something as meditative as music can be has been a real blessing in my life.

So, in some respects this is an odd choice. A song that’s mostly not really a song, it’s an extended collage of sounds that try to represent pain that, by my own admission, I can’t listen to very often. It’s telling that I can’t find a video clip of the full track anywhere – the link at the top of the post snips off the drone entirely. If you want to hear it then you’ll have to go and buy (or stream) “A Ghost Is Born”. There’s a ton of other Wilco songs that I love and listen to all the time. You want straight forward Americana tinged rock and roll ? Look no further (Outtasite). You want a sweet poppy love song ? Here you go (You And I). West Coast sunshine harmonies ? Yep (Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway). And that’s before you even get to the masterpiece that is “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” or the rootsy, stripped back “Sky Blue Sky” or the back to basics fun of “Wilco”. They are a brilliant, brilliant band. But this is my choice because it so specifically articulates a part of my life and it’s almost miraculous to me that it came from a set of circumstances that had such strong echoes of my own. I’m also slightly in awe of how Tweedy, in that state of mind, could express himself so cogently.

Is there a point to this post ? You know, a point beyond my odd need to strip away the façade I seem to have built for myself of being a “strong” person, whatever the hell that means. Stoical. Stiff upper lip. Bollocks to that. I guess the point is just to try and tread lightly, treat people with some kindness: they might be carrying burdens they’ll never let you see.

The weirdness flows between us

32. Freak Scene – Dinosaur Jr.

We showed off to each other back then. Goofing around, throwing ridiculous shapes on the dance floor, conjuring ludicrous puns that, over time, became impenetrable in-jokes, and just enjoying each other. Not, you know, in that way. Okay, sometimes in that way, but mostly it was entirely rated PG stuff; occasional moments of mild peril and sexual references. As Supergrass would later put it: we were young, we were free, we kept our teeth nice and clean. It’s unsurprising that my self penned follow up – I am middle aged, I have responsibilities, I have ground my teeth down to such an extent that I displaced my jaw – has never troubled the charts.

We were 16, going on 17, and weren’t skipping around a summer house in Austria on the brink of war trying to impress a young Nazi boy. But we were interested in the sound of music (boom, and indeed, tish). Specifically we were all starting to share a love of what you might generally term indie music; some gravitating from an earlier goth phase, others from heavy metal (an odd mix of US hair metal and New Wave Of British Heavy Metal), and some feeling the benefit of older siblings passing down people like The Smiths. Irrespective of how we got there we all arrived at a place where a shared love of Nirvana, Pixies, Muses, Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, and a host of others became something that both defined us and soundtracked our late teens and early 20s.

We, of course, was me and my friends. A small but perfectly formed gang; smart, funny, at ease with each other, if not always with ourselves. I’m probably romanticising it across the years. I’m sure there were times we had terribly dull conversations and just sat around fretting about our A levels but that’s not how I remember it. In my head now it was all either hilarious, wise cracking bon mots or very earnest, deep discussion about matters of great import. We knew we weren’t the cool kids but convinced ourselves that, because we knew that, it actually made us the cool kids anyway. We were cool because we weren’t cool but we knew it. Make sense ? Not really but it did at the time. Looking back I think we were pretty cool. If I was 16 again I would want to be friends with us.

And I would want to spend my nights at the Kandi Klub. I imagine that every major city in the UK, around the late 80s and early 90s, had its own version of the Kandi Klub: what might loosely be described as an indie rock nightclub. Somewhere for the people who felt a bit out of place everywhere else to go and feel slightly less out of place together. Later in my life I frequented Rock City in Nottingham and Sector 5 in Leicester but the Kandi Klub in Bristol was the place I called home. It was our weekly stage (literally so if it was being held in the Thekla) and where we played out our friendship.

History hasn’t recorded what anyone else thought of those kids that turned up every week and spent their time alternating between dancing very seriously – shuffling feet, head down nodding, fringes falling over eyes – and then appearing to take the piss out of it all – the star jumps, the hands on hips head shaking, the watusi. If it had I’d like to think it would mention how much fun they were having. Was it fun in that slightly self absorbed way that only teenagers can really pull off ? Yeah it was but we were slightly self absorbed teenagers so…

There’s a long, long list of songs that I associate with those regular trips to the Kandi, whether it was ensconced at The Studio or The Bierkeller or The Thekla, but the one that was guaranteed to get me on to the slightly sticky dancefloor was “Freak Scene”. It was probably one of those songs that used to get slipped in fairly early in the night, before DJ George got into the bigger “hits” from people like Nirvana and The Wonderstuff. There were a bunch of songs that occupied that part of the night that I latched on to and still love: stuff like the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up”, Buffalo Tom’s “Velvet Roof”, Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”, Pulp’s “Babies”, and probably a couple of Mudhoney tracks. As it was still early the dancefloor might be empty, or virtually empty, but we’d bounce out there regardless and throw ourselves into that aforementioned head down shuffle of a dance.

For the three and a half minutes of “Freak Scene” everything would fall away. There was the song, the sensation of moving, and that was it. Or almost it. I was self conscious enough, I expect, to be aware of the fact that I was dancing and always enjoyed the odd mixture of doing something that felt quite private in a public place* – it was effectively an outward expression of my internal relationship with the song. If you’d seen it you might, mistakenly, have seen it as a tall, spotty kid wearing a black tee shirt dotted with pieces of washing powder visibly picked out, shining, under the blue neon lights rather ponderously swishing his hair around. It wasn’t that. It was an outward expression of my internal relationship with the song. I admit some of that outward expression required that I slowly step from side to side and possibly clasp my hands behind my back. Don’t judge me.

You need places that feel like they’re yours when you’re that age, hovering uncertainly between being a child and an adult. Places and people. Territory that’s yours, where you’re free to work out who you might be. The Kandi Klub was part of my territory and if I had the chance to do it all again I’d be back there in a heartbeat with exactly the same people: my friends.

 

*this will be the only thing I did that “felt quite private in a public place” that I ‘fess up to here…

Take the long way, ‘cos I like the view

31. Take The Long Way – Po’ Girl

There’s a dull ache where my prostate should be and I’m sat in a car I don’t own, in the car park of an anonymous industrial estate on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, a town that seems to be comprised almost entirely of outskirts. I’m waiting for an all day meeting that I’d rather not attend; my expectations are for a painful few hours of corporate jockeying, career eyeing obfuscation and the uncomfortable small talk that only a group of people that really don’t know each other, despite spending every day together for the past three years, can muster. Look up inauspicious in the dictionary. There will be a picture of me in a Vauxhall Astra, eating a double bacon and egg McMuffin, on that industrial estate.

I had spent a good few minutes trying to manoeuvre the car between the white lines that had been marked out for parking. They’re set at an odd angle – perhaps 70 degrees – and are just marginally too narrow. As I’m first to arrive I can’t line up next to an already parked vehicle and, for reasons that now escape me, I had decided to reverse in. Trying to fit between the lines. As I repeatedly try to position the car this feels a lot like one of those free metaphors that life has been throwing at me of late.

I had not been looking forward to this day. Its purpose was for a small group of us to discuss team objectives, in the absence of a head of function, away from the office which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t be cause for concern. Except I’ve been in this play before. Almost exactly twelve months ago: same meeting room in the same industrial shed with the same task to be performed under the same circumstances – no head of team, let’s sort things out. Only twelve months ago the casting was different and, specifically, I had been shunted from understudy to something approaching the lead role. Now I wasn’t even sure if I qualified as understudy.

That day a year ago had, briefly, felt like a fresh beginning. I’ve dealt with my redundancy elsewhere but this had been the point at which I felt like I’d found my way back to some kind of approximation of my previous job; my previous status I guess. I was sharing the responsibility for the running of the day, the running of the team, with someone else but it was close enough. I was back doing what I knew I could do, building a happy and productive insights team.

I was sufficiently emboldened that day to take a risk. The team were dealing with the departure of their “head of” – in retrospect maybe I was dealing with it more than they were, I’m not sure. It was someone I had a lot of respect for and was bitterly disappointed to see him depart and, again in retrospect, it surfaced a lot of memories about how I had left my previous job. So I decided to risk opening up to my colleagues, sharing what was supposed to be my own personal story of dealing with change. I stopped short of a full confessional, complete disclosure of my struggle with mental illness, but there was enough there for people to fill in the blanks. I guess it was intended to be a rallying cry, an illustration of how people can come through traumatic events and stay strong. There’s some irony. It was definitely intended as a show of strength: a sense of resolve and fortitude from what might, ostensibly, appear a place of weakness. It was about empathy and understanding and letting people know that there was someone there for them – my far less eloquent version of this “down in a hole” clip from The West Wing. If you believe the corporate text books it was intended as an overt piece of “authentic leadership”. It was definitely authentic.

And then it all went wrong. Not literally then (people didn’t start throwing things and booing – they may have wanted to…) but over the next couple of months. A series of ordinarily manageable events piling up to a point where they became unmanageable; like dropping enough pebbles onto a hillside until, eventually, it dislodged a boulder, and then the whole thing came tumbling down. Then we’re into panic attacks and adrenaline and cortisol and pills and counseling and all of that stuff.

So back in the car park, a year on, I have all of that in my head. Returning to work after my sabbatical has not been without its challenges, my subconscious seems keen to cling to the fact that I’m back in an environment where I melted down. It’s well intentioned with its occasional prompting – “hey, this is a bad place for you, I remember what happened, I’m going to stimulate some chemicals for you to encourage you to get the fuck out” – but not terribly helpful. I understand the theory of it all but unpicking it in practice – rewiring it – is hard. And this particular car park, outside of the particular meeting room I’m about to go into, is a major crime scene to revisit. If I wasn’t back on beta blockers I imagine I’d be accelerating hard back down the A5 right about now.

I have a playlist that I use for my commute to work. It is, imaginatively, called “car”. Admittedly that isn’t as strong as my Motown playlist – “Good Lordy, It’s Berry Gordy” – but on a par with most of my naming conventions (for example: “new” for, er, new stuff). It was on whilst I sat in the car thinking about the upcoming meeting, set as it usually was to play on shuffle. Sometimes life chucks you a rubbish metaphor about trying to park between the lines whilst you’re wondering where you fit in and sometimes it throws you a bone. Po’ Girl’s glorious reflection on enjoying life’s journey – because that’s the only point to it all – “Take The Long Way” shuffled its way on to the car stereo.

This song was always on the list for inclusion in the 42. I didn’t necessarily expect that this odd tale of mid life crisis would be my route into it but there it is. In some respects it might have been more obvious to pick a moment in my life that was so perfect that it stopped me in my tracks; a moment in which it’s almost easy to understand that this is a moment and that’s probably all that life is, a succession of moments. The sun setting over the ocean in Lanzarote. My wife appearing at the end of the aisle on our wedding day. Sitting holding my new born daughter in the hospital. First kiss. Playing live music. Sex. Any of those would be easy to isolate as moments in which it feels like you can express what life is about. But you don’t get that many of those. What you get are a few of those and, in between, long, long stretches of sitting in car parks – metaphorically, not literally. Unless, of course, you’re a car park attendant.

So it has to be on the list because I utterly adore it, I adore the melody, I adore the vaguely incongruous mix of country and folk and hip hop, but most of all I adore the sentiment. That reminder to be mindful, to savour experience – the journey and not the destination – and that life is not something you’re working towards, it’s something you’re doing. Right now. To steal wholesale from Annie Dillard: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. All of that time sat in a car park, sat in a meeting room, is life.

It would be too neat and tidy if I told you that in that moment I understood everything I wanted to do with my life. If it was a film I’d have probably driven off, or better still, walked off, casually chucking the keys to a car that wasn’t mine over my shoulder. Maybe deliberately leaving the car parked across the lines first: you see what I did there ? But I don’t (sadly) live in an Aaron Sorkin drama and whilst walking off into a Milton Keynes sunrise might have been glorious for a while it would have been swiftly followed by a dawning realisation that I got responsibilities now.

It was enough, for now, that it reminded me to be present. It was enough that it got me back into that meeting room and got me through that meeting without gasping for air. Right now there are days when that is enough: that is a good day. That won’t always be enough because, how we spend our days and all that, but right now it is.