Monthly Archives: July 2016

We are home now

It resumed, as befits a great love affair, on a hot summer’s night. Not quite the Valentine’s anniversary that would have knitted together the last twenty three years perfectly but after so long what’s a few months between old lovers ? It resumed in London. Leicester was a hazy memory of long fringes, short sleeved tee-shirts over long sleeved tee-shirts, and long afternoons in bars stretching into longer nights in clubs and watching bands.

She brought her mates again. They’d not been together for a while but the easy camaraderie and friendship was still there: a little gang against the world, like all the best bands. I turned up alone. She was still cool, confident, talented and sassy. And now she was wise and warm too. I was no longer growing out a haircut turned bad. After several missteps from our first encounter I’d settled on something suitably respectable: greying, sensible, unremarkable. I probably should have had a better sense of who I was by now. Maybe I did. Some days I’m not so sure. She was from Boston, Mass. I was from Amersham, Bucks. Twenty three years ago it probably wasn’t meant to be and I guess now that will never change.

Earlier on this blog I wrote about seeing Belly in Leicester back in ’93. You can read that here: https://42at42.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/you-cant-change-the-unchangeably-untogether/. Last night they returned to the UK for a series of reunion dates and, spoiler alert, it was glorious.

As I wrote then there are some bands that you just get. They’re playing at relatively small venues – this isn’t a cash in tour by any means – but they’re all packed out with devotees who probably never thought they’d see them again. I’ve rarely seen an audience so on side with the people on stage. Everyone who was there gets them. There’s just something in those circular, dreamlike, chiming riffs and something in those vocal ticks and trills and something in those lyrics – man, those dark and twisted and beautiful lyrics – and something in those shout along melodies and choruses. They were woven into the fabric of my 20s and I can trace the stitches back across the last twenty years. There are parts of me that those songs spoke to, still speak to, and always will.

We got the singles. “Feed The Tree”, “Gepetto”, “Now They’ll Sleep”, “Super Connected” (a riotous version: they pack more of a punch than I remember). There are a few sound problems but dynamically they were always a tough band for an engineer to pin down: from the quietest whisper in the ear to a roar and back again inside of a verse and chorus. But you know what ? It didn’t matter. We got some lesser known gems, brilliant versions of “Spaceman” and “Thief” (this post’s “we are home now” borrowing its refrain). We got most of “Star” and we got most of “King”. The songs from the latter, in particular, came across really well – a wonderful “Judas My Heart”,  a delicate “The Bees”, a joyous stomp through “Red”. We got two new songs and they offered huge promise although given Tanya Donelly’s solo and recent collaborative songwriting that really wasn’t a surprise.

There were several on stage references – mainly from bassist Gail on usual hilarious form – to reliving the 90s but the thing that struck me over and above everything was just how well the songs had weathered. They don’t sound especially like a stuck-in-the-90s band; that just happened to be when these songs first surfaced. I’m hoping they decide to surface some more now that they’re back playing together again.

Finally, we got “Stay”. Writing about the performance in ’93 I described it as a soaring, spine-tingling, heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest kind of song. I wasn’t wrong then and time has not dimmed its power. Emotionally it was a curious evening in many ways – a revisitation of people we used to be, catching up with ourselves and remembering some former, formative versions of ourselves. Mostly it was a straightforward expression of joy. “Stay” stopped me in my tracks just like it did all those years ago. There’s all sorts of personal reasons why hearing T sing “it’s not time for me to go” cut me to the core and that was the moment, right there at the end, that Belly had me in tears. I’ve a long and distinguished record of crying at concerts but this was the strangest mix of happy tears for what had been and sad ones for some things to come.

Then they were gone. If falling in love, all those years ago, was about possibilities and being at peace, then rekindling that love was about all of the things that love is really about: constance and comfort and fun and feeling like you’re home. Oh, and singing fragile ballads but also rocking like bastards.

We are home now.

Moonshot

That was the high point, wasn’t it ? How’d we get from the low point – I use Hiroshima as my benchmark low point for the US but your mileage may vary – to the high point in less than twenty five years ? And don’t tell me it was JFK. I mean I get that he did the vision thing but really that guy was no completer finisher. It was the egg heads and boffins behind the scenes that should’ve got the glory, even more than Armstrong and Aldrin and the other one – who was the other one ? All of those “right stuff” guys. It wasn’t just them, it was the techies and scientists. Probably the same ones who carved out our low point, right ? Funny how they get the credit for that – Oppenheimer, Feynman, Fermi – but you never hear about the lab coat brigade at NASA that put a a man on the moon. It’s all astronaut suits and suspiciously horizontal flags and one small step. I know the flag was wires and shit. I don’t think Kubrick faked it all. I mean, have you seen “Eyes Wide Shut” ? He couldn’t even get Tom and Nicole to look convincing having sex and they were married.

Michael Collins. That was the other one. Floating round the moon, staring out into the abyss whilst his buddies got the kudos. Armstrong always gets the same questions – how did it feel being first, what was it like looking back at Earth yadda yadda ? And Aldrin doesn’t get off any easier – how does it feel being second ? Always asked with that same slight sense of “that must suck, you were *this* close buddy”. I mean, come on, he was the second guy on the fucking moon. It’s not like he was the runner up quarterback in the Superbowl. Second. Person. Ever. On. The. Fucking. Moon. He should just get a badge or something made up that says: I’ve been on the moon, unless you’re one of the other eleven people to share that privilege then shut the fuck up. Maybe something snappier than that but you get the idea. Anyway, where was I ? Collins. He never gets the same questions because everyone’s forgotten about him. Everyone’s forgotten about the guy that was first to orbit the moon and sit on his own, zero contact with Earth, and stare out into the void. I don’t know much about him – be honest, who does – but he must now either be the most Zen guy down here or out of his mind. This is me. That’s the endless reaches of nothingness. Fuck.

I don’t know. Maybe Collins and Armstrong and Aldrin went through all the same thoughts as the Enola Gay pilot. Maybe, up close, the low point and the high point didn’t feel so different ? He must have contemplated something as he pulled the big old lever to drop the bomb. Look, if you’re a World War 2 flight nerd then don’t bother to tell me that it wasn’t a lever, alright ? I know it wasn’t a lever. A button or something. Probably red with one of those little plastic flick up covers over it so you couldn’t accidentally lean on it too soon. What was that Tibbets ? Ah, shit, sorry guys but I just caught the nuke button with my elbow when I was drinking my coffee and… They didn’t get coffee on the Enola Gay, did they ? Anyway, the point is that surely being on top of something that momentous gives you pause. Why are we here ? What’s it all about ? What’s out there in that featureless expanse ? How can I justify killing thousands and thousands of people ?

Just ignore me if this is bugging you. I get like this sometimes. Especially when I see Trump on TV, you know ? How’d we get from 1969 and landing on the moon and the Stones and free love and LSD to 2016 and building a wall across our border and the Kardashians and no love and the NRA ? I can see the steps but I can’t see which one was the mis-step. If you could go back – McFly, McFly ! – then where would you undo it ? Maybe Armstrong’s not the hero. I know he never claimed to be but maybe that was the start of all this need to make someone emblematic of everything else. Is that even a word ? Emblematic ? I guess it is now. We made him the star. The greatest achievement, scientific or otherwise, of mankind and we made it about a man. That stuff belongs to all of us. We did that. All of us. I mean, not me obviously – and probably not actually you – but metaphorically we did that. Armstrong just got to wear the suit and fluff his lines leaving the lunar module. Aldrin probably gave him an impatient nudge and put him off.

Ah man I don’t even know what to make of it all. We came back from the moon and the best we found was Trump and Clinton. What the fuck ? We went with less computational power than you’ve got in your phone and all you use that for is watching videos of cats and playing Pokemon Go ? If I was Tibbets I’d dust Enola Gay off, take her up for one last flight and put us all out of our misery. Flick up the little plastic cover and give that big old red button a push. Another low point and maybe, just maybe, in twenty five years we can do something worthwhile again. Or better still what would I give to swap places with Collins ? Circling, circling the moon and watching the darkness for hours before getting to see the Earth reborn, shining in space, on each rotation.

 

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This is story 35 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

Honestly I don’t really know what this is. It’s the anniversary of the first moon landing today and it came as a character led stream-of-consciousness splurge from that. It’s pretty much as it came so apologies for the lack of edit. I am not the narrator but I can see where he is coming from. Troubling times.

Poppy

Poppy marked a cross.

They’d named her Poppy for their grandfather, her “great gramps”, a man she’d never met because he’d fallen at the Somme when he was just 23. They’d taken her a few years ago so they could all find his name on the Thiepval Memorial, etched in stone beneath unadorned red brick. She hadn’t expected to feel a connection, hadn’t expected to feel much at all if she was honest with herself. Paris was next on the itinerary and she’d been itching to idle away afternoons sipping café and watching people drift around the 6th arrondissement. She was young and France was art and intellectuals and Les Deux Magots and, yes, again if she was honest with herself, it was also going to be shopping. France was Sartre and De Beauvoir but it was Chanel and Dior and Louboutin and Lacroix as well.

She remembered the surprise when they’d arrived and the sheer size of the monument as it loomed over her, impressing on her the sense of the scale of the loss. She was one person looking up, humbled, in memory at the absence of seventy two thousand. As she picked her way around the base of the structure the names were overwhelming: Joseph Anstee, Charles Balding, Frank Bell, Arthur Boon, David Brannick… All from the Lincolnshire Regiment. She found him, nestled alphabetically alongside his brothers, and traced the letters of his name carved in the stone with her finger. They’d found her there a few minutes later kneeling in front of a wall of the dead and weeping for a man she’d never known.

She wore her name with a certain pride after that day. A pride she nurtured through journeys to the beaches in Normandy to see where her grandfather had landed less then thirty years after his father had died. She’d driven across the country in pursuit of the route he’d taken: Pont L’Eveque, Saint Maclou, Pavilly, Yerville, Motteville, Yvetot, Bermonville, and Valmont. They were small, sleepy farming villages where tourists wouldn’t ordinarily go but she’d always, generally been welcomed. Her faltering French delivered in a distinctly English accent seemed to open as many doors amongst the older residents as it closed them among the young. Wherever she went they delighted in her name, some even calling her coquelicot, wild poppy: she loved it.

When she’d met Dan he’d loved the coquelicot story too and had adopted it as they’d grown in intimacy, a kind of petits noms d’amour. She’d carried that name along with her birth name as the two of them had followed his family history back across a broader sweep of Europe. He’d been inspired by her desire to know her roots and so they’d ranged across Poland and Romania visiting run down old synagogues in forgotten corners of old city quarters, looking for the places his ancestors had fled from. Their travels took them, eventually, to the silence of the long liberated camp at Dachau where one of the trails they’d been following ran to the coldest stop. The other trails ran back home to England.

They had family marked with crosses across the continent. From France to Germany, from Poland to Romania. They both used to joke that they wished their grandparents and their great grandparents had managed to venture somewhere warmer as they’d traveled across northern Europe, as they’d looked to thread together their shared past. Your granddad wasn’t much for the sun, even if he could have gone, her parents had told her with a smile, your grandma could barely get him to Skegness every year.

She didn’t know what they would have wanted but she was certain they’d have wanted her to make her own choice. To choose for herself and not for them. She stood in the polling booth and thought about connections and about all the people she had met and about her future and her past. She had family marked with crosses across the continent.

Poppy marked a cross.

 

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This is story 34 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This was written on the 100th anniversary of the senseless Battle Of The Somme and I guess is my small tribute to lots of braver people than me. It’s also some attempt to capture my genuine sadness in the wake of the EU referendum vote last week and, in particular, the tone of the debate and the upturn in nationalism and xenophobia that’s been evident since. In or out there’s more that unites us than divides us.