Tag Archives: grief

Riffs and variations on Abba, Dark Souls, charity shops, and bad analogies for grief

“It is not about Agnetha’s sexual awakening.”

“I didn’t say it was Agnetha…”

“Okay, then,” said Jen. “It is not about either Agnetha or Anna-Frid’s sexual awakening, no matter how much you might wish otherwise.”

“We’re just going to have to disagree,” replied Pete. “The whole song is one extended metaphor for learning about sex. All that stuff about being under a spell, finding new horizons, riding on the breeze. Spreading my wings. Spreading. C’mon, it’s not subtle.”

“Really? Learning about sex? It’s not that at all. It’s just Abba doing a 70s stoner anthem. Benny and Bjorn – probably Benny, he always looked like he liked a smoke – stayed up one night wired to the gills and wrote a song about soaring with the eagles. Maaaan. They even made the girls emphasise the ‘high’ in the chorus. You’re right that it’s not subtle but it’s about drugs, it’s not about sex.”

“You’ve got to view it in the context of their broader work,” said Pete.

“How so?”

“Name Of The Game. All that ‘I’m a bashful child, waiting to grow’ stuff. Does Your Mother Know. Possibly underage girl propositioning older man. Gimme Gimme Gimme. Frustrated, repressed desire. When I Kissed The Teacher. Do you need me to go on? They had loads of songs about young women being shepherded into womanhood with the help of an older man…”

“I don’t agree on Eagle but you’ve got a point about some of the others,” said Jen. “To be fair I don’t think you could release Does Your Mother Know now.”

“It hasn’t aged well. I know it was the 70s but…”

“Which one was your favourite?” interrupted Jen. “Agnetha or Anna-Frid?”

“Agnetha, obviously. Mostly for her voice. I barely noticed her blue eyes, blonde hair, or her perfect behind in those purple jump suits.”

“Now we’re getting to the bottom of your sexual awakening…”

“Boom and indeed tish. Very good,” acknowledged Pete. “She can’t lay claim to that though. I was too young. Maybe something stirred in my sub-conscious but it was really Jenny Agutter in American Werewolf In London that made me a man.”

“It was Simon Le Bon for me. Maybe Nick Rhodes. Maybe the thought of both of them together. Possibly on a yacht.”

“Easy tiger.”

“I was never the same after that ‘Wild Boys’ video,” said Jen.

“Georgie hated Duran Duran,” said Pete. There was a pause as there often was at mention of her name.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Jen. “After we first met it came up, I can’t really remember how but I presume we were drunk. She said she hated them but I used to put on ‘Planet Earth’ sometimes when we came home from the pub when we lived together and she knew all the words. I think it was like me pretending to hate house when she got into that.”

“I’ve still got all of her records, back from when she was DJ’ing a bit, a load of limited edition, white label, 12 inches that I don’t recognise. They’re with all her stuff. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“I think I can understand that. I don’t think she’d have wanted them to stay unplayed though. She always loved it when she could fill the floor and she wasn’t too snobby about what she played to do it, Duran Duran notwithstanding. In fact, speaking of Abba, didn’t she used to occasionally slip Mamma Mia in? Said it used to tip the night into a mess – place would go insane or everyone would go to the bar but either way it ended up in a mess,” said Jen.

“Yeah, she did. Maybe you’re right, maybe I should get rid of her records at least. She’d want someone to be making a mess with them if they could. Where’d you get shot of stuff like that though?”

“Charity shop?”

“Not much chance round here anymore, they’re hardly ever open to taking things now,” said Pete. “I think people were just dumping stuff off on them all the time. It was like middle class fly tipping: great piles of Dan Brown books, Fifty Shades Of Grey, three quarter size guitars that little Harry didn’t take to after all, Friends boxsets on VHS, twice worn tuxedos that used to fit, and stacks and stacks of CDs long since replaced by Spotify playlists.”

“I guess you could trek over to Notting Hill, see if the Record & Tape Exchange would take them?” suggested Jen.

“That would involve leaving the house and visiting a place we used to go to together. It’s been three years and I still don’t know if I’m ready for that. Every time it feels like it’s getting a little easier I trip over something and I’m right back where I started.”

“Two steps forwards and one step back?” offered Jen.

“It feels more like one step forwards and two steps back most of the time,” said Pete.

“Sorry, I guess it was the wrong expression.”

“It’s okay. There’s no way to get it right in words,” said Pete. “I think I’m going to write a book called ‘Bad Analogies For Grief’. I’ve been collecting them. The ones people offer by way of condolence, the ones you pick up in counselling, the ones you come up with yourself. There’s no proper way to express how overwhelming it is so you come at it from an angle, think you can pin it down and force it to make sense if you can put it into some sort of words… Want to hear my latest one?”. Jen didn’t fill the pause and so Pete continued. “I was pulling a glass down from a cupboard last week and it slipped, fell, and broke on the floor. Pieces everywhere. And the first thing you do after it happens is that you don’t move, because if you move you’re probably going to get cut. You freeze. And then you notice the big pieces. So you pick those up first because you know they’re going to hurt like hell if you step on them. But broken glass is hard to handle and even when you see a piece that looks like it broke clean it’ll sometimes surprise you with a sharp point and the more you pick up the more you start to notice that there are fragments everywhere, small diamond slivers scattered across the kitchen floor. And then you remember it’s the kitchen floor you both used to walk barefoot across in the morning. And you remember something stupid like making coffee and toast and taking it back upstairs to read the papers under the duvet on a Sunday morning. And then, as you’re remembering, you stand on a piece of glass you hadn’t noticed and the shock of it, the pain, makes you step again without looking and before you know where you are you’ve stepped into more and more unseen pieces. Each one a tiny broken fragment of the perfect, whole thing that you remembered. Just the smallest splinter, the tiniest memory, is enough to start it. Enough to bring you back to a halt.” It had come in a rush, Pete’s words tumbling over themselves. Neither spoke until Pete finally concluded. “That’s my latest one. My new analogy. The breaking glass one.”

“God, Pete, you know I don’t know what to say,” offered Jen apologetically. “I guess I’m supposed to say that eventually you sweep up most of the pieces?”

“Yes, you are,” said Pete. “Only grief doesn’t work like that. It’s like there’s a new glass dropping on the floor every single day. Maybe you’re supposed to say that eventually you go a day when a glass doesn’t drop. All I know is that I haven’t had one of those yet.”

“But you will.”

“But I might. That’s my best guess. Right now I think I’m getting a little better at spotting the shards even if I can’t stop the glass falling,” said Pete. “I guess I need to git gud.”

“You need to what?”

“Oh, sorry.” Pete laughed. Some of the tension on the line dissolved, eased. “It’s from Dark Souls. Video game I’ve been playing a lot instead of having to interact in the real world. It’s a really hard RPG where you die over and over again and when you get stuck and look up advice online people tell you that there’s no short cut to it, just that you have to git gud…”

“Get good?”

“Yeah. But spelled g i t and then g u d.”

“Why don’t they say ‘get good’, then?” asked Jen. “What’s with the ‘git gud’ thing? Doesn’t sound very nice either way.”

“I don’t know where it came from,” said Pete. “Gamers with too much time on their hands. The funny thing is that it doesn’t sound very nice but there’s a weird kind of community in the game. If you get really stuck you can ask other people to come into your game and help you out – online obviously, you don’t literally invite them into your house or anything.”

“There you go. That’s a ready made metaphor or analogy if I ever heard one. You need to add a chapter to your book – maybe a post script – about ‘Bad Analogies for Help With Grief’.”

“People helping? I hadn’t really thought of it that way but I guess you’re right. There have been moments, stupid as it sounds, when some random character popping up in my game and getting me past some impossible boss fight has been the highlight of my day.”

“I like the sound of this game,” said Jen. “I thought all those online things were just people trying to shoot each other and shouting abuse about getting owned.”

“I feel bad for spoiling it for you and wrecking the metaphor but people can invade your game in Dark Souls and just randomly attack you too. It’s all a bit arbitrary and chaotic.”

“Like I said. It’s a ready made metaphor. Analogies aside, Pete, are you alright?”

There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“This is just like Dark Souls, Jen. Repeating the same thing over and over again until you’re strong enough to move on. No. I’m not alright. Not today. I need to level up. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

Advertisements

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ZZ Top, Carrie Fisher, incessant drizzle, and the reminders of absence

“I’ve got a confession. I spent too much time in my formative years masturbating to ZZ Top videos.”

“Was it the beards?”

“No, it was those spinning guitars they had. I couldn’t get enough of them.” They both laughed.

“You’re a strange, strange man, Pete, you know that?” said Jen.

“And yet here you are. Again. So what’s that make you?”

“Loyal. Kind. Maybe a bit strange too.” Jen paused for a moment. “For the record though I don’t tend to walk around garages in dusty pit-stop American towns wearing tiny cut off denim shorts so I would have been no use to your adolescent self.”

“Oh I don’t know. Teenage boys can spin a wank out of almost anything.”

“Gee Pete, you really know how to flatter a girl…”

“I meant…”

“I’d leave this one if I was you. Quit while you’re way, way behind.”

“Okay. You don’t want to hear about my Carrie Fisher phase then?”

“Not if it’s more tales from the wank-bank, no,” said Jen. “If it’s a radical feminist awakening phase that you went through when you learned to appreciate strong, independent women for who they were rather than whether they were wearing a gold bikini then maybe. We’re in a post-Weinstein world Pete.”

“She was quite something.”

“Yeah, she was. Did you read any of her books? I can lend you Postcards From The Edge if you haven’t got it.”

“I’ve read it,” said Pete. It was his turn to pause. “Georgie had a copy. She loved it and she loved Fisher. I still haven’t seen the new films, you know. I know she was really looking forwards to them, especially when she heard she’d signed on, and I just don’t want to see them without her.”

“They’re pretty good but I’m no judge,” replied Jen. “Georgie was the expert on that sort of stuff. I saw Phantom Menace with her, I think it was before you two got together when she lived with me. I liked it. Couldn’t understand why she was in such a foul mood for a couple of weeks.”

Pete laughed. “When we moved in together she made me get rid of my DVDs for episodes 1 to 3. Said she didn’t want them in the house. These aren’t the films you’re looking for. Those were her exact words. I was in love with her before that but I think that was the moment I really knew.”

“It was the moment she knew too. I’ve never told you this but she rang me that week because she couldn’t believe you’d thrown them out. Apparently you didn’t even try and argue about it. Just opened the back door and chucked them in the bin. She was seriously impressed…”

“Really?” said Pete. “That’s funny. All she told me was how seriously unimpressed she was that I even had them in the first place. I still think there’s a decent film trying to break its way out of parts 2 and 3 but she was pretty militant about it. I did once catch her watching Revenge Of The Sith though when it was on TV. She said she was checking that it was as bad as she remembered it.”

“And was it?”

“So she said. You reckon she’d have like Last Jedi?”

“Yeah, I do. I think she’d want you to go see it, too.”

They were both silent. Jen was about to speak again but she was stopped by Pete’s voice, cracking but growing progressively stronger. “The funny thing is that I know you’re right but it’s just one in a long list of things I’ve stopped myself doing since she died and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to any of them. I haven’t listened to Ryan Adams. We saw him at the Lyric before anyone knew who he was. He was always our singer. There’s a Turkish place we used to eat in a couple of times a month that I haven’t been back to. Won’t walk over Hammersmith Bridge. It’s where I would have proposed. Gave up reading Game Of Thrones and I won’t watch the TV show. She was always telling me to read it but I wanted to wait until he finished writing all of them. There’s an upcoming exhibition at the Tate, retrospective of Japanese contemporary art, that I won’t go to because… No, I don’t get how it can be retrospective and contemporary either but that’s not why I’m not going… She won’t be there with me.”

“When do you think you’ll be ready to let…”

“Let her go? I won’t ever be ready to do that Jen.” No anger; a weary resignation.

“I wasn’t going to say that. Not let her go. Let those things go is what I was going to say. They’re not her.”

“No but that’s where I feel the traces of her most sharply,” said Pete after another extended pause. The conversation’s rhythm was broken now. Staccato sentences punctuated with silence. “Or that’s where I feel the absence of her most sharply. I still catch myself turning to tell her something, to point something out, and then remember she’s not there. I tell her anyway. In those places, with those things, it’d just be too much. How can I find joy in the things we used to find joy in together?”

“Can I tell you something stupid?” asked Jen.

“More stupid than my ZZ Top confession?”

“More stupid than that. You were young and impressionable. I’ve got no excuse. For a while, after she died, I didn’t know what would happen to us. To our friendship I mean. Me and you. I knew Georgie a long time, before you guys got together, but all my strongest associations were with both of you, as a couple. I worried that seeing you, speaking to you, would just be a constant reminder to me that someone was missing. That it’d be too painful. I worried we wouldn’t be able to be friends.”

“And yet here you are. Here we are. Again. I appreciate it, Jen, I really do. You’re like – these talks, they’re like a little bit of sun through the clouds.”

“I thought I would be more like incessant drizzle?” said Jen.

“Incessant Drizzle? Weren’t they on Rough Trade?”

“You’re thinking of Mild To Moderate Snow Showers. Or maybe Outside Chance of Hail. I always get them mixed up.”

Pete laughed, sucked in a deep breath. “Thank you for…, well for this. For talking shit and listening and making bad jokes and… well for all of it.”

“No thanks necessary,” said Jen. “Don’t think I’m letting you forget that you described me as a little bit of sun through the clouds though.”

“Just ‘cos it’s cheesy doesn’t mean it’s not true. Normal service will be resumed when we next speak.”

“I look forward to it. Seriously though, are you alright?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“You know the drill by now Jen. No. I’m not alright. Not today. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

Supercut

I’ve stared at a blank page for a while now, trying to compose this. I feel a little like the first time you tell someone you love them. The words are there but you can’t quite find your way into them. Deep breath. It’s only a blog post. It’s only a quick reflection on your favourite records of 2017. Okay. Here goes.

Lorde’s “Melodrama” was, for me, the standout record of the year. And, to be honest, other than a late and spirited run from Phoebe Bridger’s brilliant “Stranger In The Alps”, nothing else really got close. Nothing new at least. I had that thing again this year, which looks like it’s here to stay, where I either discovered or rediscovered something old. Poked around in the attic (technically Spotify but, you know, attic sounds more romantic) and dusted down something previously lost: this year it was a lot of “Rumours” era Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young’s “After The Goldrush” and, most of all, a lot of The Beatles. I mean a lot. I don’t think I really, genuinely, got The Beatles until this year whereas I will now quite happily argue the toss about why they are absolutely the greatest band to ever walk the planet.

I’m drifting. Another deep breath. Lorde. In some respects the fact that I love a record aching with the crushing sadness of being young, falling in love, falling out of love, figuring out your place in the world, dancing like it’s the only thing worth doing, hurting with the intensity that you hurt that first time you get hurt, hell, feeling everything with the intensity you feel that first time, isn’t a surprise. It’s maybe a surprise that a record that so perfectly encapsulates being young hit me like a sledge hammer when I have more grey hairs than brown, am probably closer to the end than the beginning. Bit it did. Does.

“Melodrama” is as damn near perfect as makes no difference. It’s smart and funny. It’s happy-sad. It lifts you up, it puts you down, and then it dusts you off and you feel like everything will be okay. It’s beautifully written: Lorde’s words were the sharpest, most perceptive, warmest, that I heard this year. There are lines that made me smile, lines that made me gasp, lines that made me cry. It’s a writer’s record. She strikes me as one of those musicians that could happily strike out and write prose or poetry – like Willy Vlautin or Nick Cave or Joni or Bob. I know that’s exalted company and she’s only 21 but I think she’s pretty special. And did I mention that I adore her record? God I adore her record.

There’s a host of details I love about “Melodrama” – things like the chk chk pause between the verse and first chorus in “Perfect Places” – but it’s the cohesion of the whole piece that has brought me back to it over and over. The narrative of the first rush of love – falling in and then falling out – framed loosely through a party isn’t necessarily new but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone articulate the experience of being young so clearly. The simultaneous joy and terror of it. The rawness of it before you learn to get a little more numb.

“Supercut” is the standout for me albeit it seems picky to zero in on one song on an album that works, fundamentally, as an album. It hangs together as a whole (which may, sadly, partially explain its relative lack of commercial success compared to its predecessor “Pure Heroine”). “Supercut” is glorious. To be honest if all it had going for it was the line we were wild and fluorescent come home to my heart then I’d be there. That is beautiful and perfect. The rest of the song, a reflection on lost love and the edited highlights of it that are all that remain in memory, ain’t too shabby either.

This wasn’t, I don’t think, what I’d envisaged for this post. But there’s something in that opening analogy about expressing love. If I needed a reminder that music is the thing, for me, that rips right through the rational part of me, the cynical part of me, and cuts to the core – the inner kid that heard the heartbreak in “Winner Takes It All” and fell in love with sad songs – then Lorde’s record does that. I can rationalise and explain all sorts of reasons why I love it but, ultimately, it just connects with me and does what music’s supposed to do: makes you feel alive.

Elsewhere, as alluded above, I also got cut open by the Phoebe Bridger’s record (especially “Motion Sickness” and the absolutely gorgeous “Scott Street”) and a range of records from the past. I spent a lot of time in the company of Stevie Nicks (who inspired her own spin off range of short stories – here) and Fleetwood Mac and I was bowled over by The Beatles, maybe twenty years after I should have been. But I guess that’s the flip side benefit of losing cultural touchpoints defined by everyone hearing things together (does that even really happen now?) – everyone now has access to everything so the past is laid out like a new country to be discovered.

2016 was the tidal wave. I lost my mum and it was like nothing I’d ever known. 2017 has been the undertow. I’ve been back on my feet but get pulled over and sucked back. I think I’m learning that grief works like that. I think it probably always will. I’ve always leant on music as my emotional crutch and the Lorde record was the one I leant on most this year.

 

 

The needle and the damage done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say. Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.

 

Things can only get better…

If you’d asked me I’d have said it felt like things were ending and not beginning. They were difficult, uncertain times. I was spending my days distracted, worrying about Trump and whether the Korean Peninsula was going to ignite. Or watching Davis and Bernier butt heads in Brussels; as mismatched as Mayweather and McGregor but with even more money at stake. Trucks on Las Ramblas, crossbow bolts on cricket pitches, Neo Nazis marching in small town America. Stuff I couldn’t do much about beyond post disapproving links to my own personal echo chamber on social media. I think everyone switched off from those sort of posts after the referendum anyway. Some kind of political fatigue. I imagine if the English Civil War had played out on Facebook then Charles may well have kept his head and his crown; all that simmering New Model Army agitation dissipating, threads about Leveller demands for suffrage lost in a sea of cat videos and personality quizzes. Burford might have trended on Twitter for a couple of hours. Hashtag Thompson, Perkins and Church. Everyone left to get back to checking out the Daily Mail’s pap shots of a bikini clad Henrietta Maria on the beach in France with England’s exiled monarch. I know, I know. There were no long lenses in the seventeenth century. Or cameras. Or bikinis. But you get the idea: nobody’s changing anyone’s mind on social.

Driving home that day I took the detour I’d been taking all summer, the one that passed the fields blanketed in sunflowers. Their heads were bowed slightly now as Autumn approached. There was something strangely somber, dignified, in their quiet genuflection. It was only poignant, I guess, if you’d seen them in the weeks before, rows upon rows of bright beaming faces raised in praise of the sun. Who am I kidding? We see reflected back what’s already inside us. Maybe you’d have just seen a field of nice flowers without all the attendant pathos. I saw some metaphorical expression of my state of mind. Wilting. Still straining for the sun but wilting nonetheless. I make it sound more melodramatic than it merited but I think I was in my Poundshop Shelley phase. Or CostCo Keats. Pick the discount retailer and romantic poet combination that works best for you. Woolworth’s Wordsworth. I wandered through the pick n’ mix lonely as a cloud. The important part, looking back, is that I was still straining for the sun. It’s not like I’d passed by a field of rotten, broken stalks, dead headed beyond recognition, and thought: hey, that’s me. By my standards it was a pretty optimistic outlook but, as I say, if you’d asked it didn’t feel like the beginning of anything.

It was round about the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. I mention it only as it seems relevant as a kind of cultural sign post, everyone looking back at how we all reacted then and what it said about us all. Apparently it was the event that broke the great British reserve and prefaced our now seemingly endless embrace of public displays of grief. All magnified on social but let’s not go there again (I’m betting if Charles had been beheaded in our alternatively imagined Civil War then the outpouring of dislikes and crying emoji’s would have brought down the Facebook servers). I say ‘apparently’ because that’s not how I remember it. I woke up with a hangover that day that probably just about makes my Greatest Hangover Hits (middle of side 1: not a real face melter that you’d start the album with or one of the really brutal slow burners that you’d stick on the end of side 2) but it was twenty years ago – back when you’d shake that shit off before the first coffee and half a bacon sandwich was done. Not like now when drinking punishes you for days, a crime that always delivers a custodial sentence instead of the slap-on-the-wrist community service order you used to enjoy. To blow away the cobwebs I’d wandered down to the local newsagents to pick up the Sunday rags and had made it all the way back to the flat before noticing the front page: I used to read the sports first. Things had evidently been in the balance at whatever point the papers went to print over night as the headlines described the crash and her condition as precarious. I was staying with a couple of friends who didn’t have a TV so we flicked on the radio. Yes, we were that bohemian (well, I wasn’t, I had a 32 inch monstrosity that took up half of my living room but they were always a little more sophisticated than me). All stations were playing quiet classical music and so we knew long before a very BBC Home Counties voice gently intoned that “out of respect” all regular programming had been suspended. It’s the voice they will roll out in the event of nuclear armageddon: regretfully we are all about to be annihilated in a fiery radioactive inferno so we have suspended Pete Tong and bring you, instead, this piece by Vivaldi. The Archers will continue as usual. So we knew that she’d died. And you know what? I don’t mean to sound callous about it but it meant literally nothing to us: nothing then and, looking back, it means even less to me now. To paraphrase Morrissey: she said nothing to us about our life. I think someone cracked an entirely inappropriate, coal black gag and we got on with the day. It was only in the weeks that followed as I tiptoed through the bizarre and extraordinary public grief that it felt like it mattered to me at all – and it only mattered in that it was maybe the first time that I felt completely out of step with the public mood. Then again I never was good at picking sides. I voted remain. I had a job interview the day of her funeral, driving past abandoned flowers on the M1.

Maybe it was Brian Cox that sparked the beginning. My own personal, if unlikely, Higgs Bosun. Maybe he kicked it all off. When I made it home I’d eaten dinner with my daughter and we’d turned to chatting about astronomy. She wanted to know whether there were any famous astronomers and, mistakenly figuring she wouldn’t know the difference, I offered up the former D: Ream keyboard wizard and booted up a lecture he’d delivered on Youtube. Straight away she called me out on the fact that he was a physicist and not an astronomer. She’s nine. I took comfort that she’d spotted it and more comfort that when I explained that there weren’t really any famous astronomers she thought that was another good reason to pursue it as potential career. She also offered up Edwin Hubble as an example of a famous astronomer which gave me a reassuring insight into her frame of reference for what should constitute fame. We didn’t make it that far through Cox’s lecture if I’m honest. I’m not going to pretend that me and the pre-tween were scribbling out e=mc squared and back solving calculus on the kitchen blackboard long into the evening. She returned to watching Sam & Kat on Netflix and I opened a bottle of wine. But we did make it far enough to hear him describe the number of galaxies in the universe that they’d observed through Hubble in a patch of sky that you could cover with a five pence piece if you held it twenty metres away from your eye. Ten thousand.

Ten thousand galaxies under a five pence piece. I think that was when I felt a tingle of wonder return. Felt the possibilities. I think that was maybe the beginning.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ennui, Lorde, solutions architecture, and puns about hats

“Did you get it?”

“Not only did I not get it but they didn’t even talk to me about it.”

“But you threw your hat in the ring, right?”

“Yeah, of course but it looks like there wasn’t really a ring to throw my hat into. Or I didn’t have a very good hat. Or the ring was already full with a much better hat. Is that too much now on the hat stuff?”

“No way. I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. You’ve got a top hat-”

“Really? A ‘top hat’?” interrupted Pete. “That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Unintentional punnery, I promise,” protested Jen. “I would con-fez if it’d been a deliberate hat joke.”

“Good lord. Remind me why I call you again when I’ve got bad news? There’s a…,” Pete paused for emphasis, “…flat cap on my career prospects and by way of commiserations you’re doing bad gags about millinery.”

“Sorry, let’s draw a veil over the whole thing…” said Jen.

“That’s not a hat, is it?”

“It’s kind of head gear. Close enough to count as another feather in my-”

“No more. Enough.” Pete cut off the last pun but she could hear him barely suppressing his laughter.

“Okay. Seriously though, I can’t believe they didn’t speak to you. I know I don’t really know much about that thing you do… what is that thing you do again? Actually, don’t bother, I didn’t really understand it last time. I don’t know much about it but I thought you were getting on really well.”

“So did I. And it’s Solutions Architecture in IT,” said Pete.

“Yeah, let’s not try and have that conversation again.”

“Agreed as long as you don’t try and explain PR to me again.”

“Like I said. It’s dead easy.” Jen let out an exaggerated sigh. “I try to get journalists to write nice things about the company, or, technically get them to reproduce the nice things I’ve already written about the company for them,”

“Except…”

“Except when I think they might be about to write nasty things about the company and then I try to stop them. That’s basically it.”

“Doesn’t it ever strike you as, I don’t know, utterly futile?” asked Pete.

“Maybe. No more so than translating a bunch of user requirements into what’s basically just a rough idea for a piece of software design that you then give to some actual developers to go and build.”

“Touche. And I thought you didn’t understand it?”

“PR darling,” mocked Jen. “Knowledge for us is a mile wide and an inch deep. Don’t ask me what any of those things actually mean.”

“Depressing, isn’t it? I can’t decide if I’m genuinely sad about not getting the job or about the fact that I thought I might have even wanted it in the first place. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, was it? Me and Georgie used to talk about it. How we’d carve out our niches doing the things we loved and it wouldn’t matter too much if we never really got paid that well. I was going to write software, not ‘solutionise’ it or ‘architect’ it or any of those other pieces of jargon we invent to legitimise all this nonsense. She was going to get her club night off the ground, try and get into promoting stuff.”

“What happened?” nudged Jen quietly.

“I don’t know. It seemed temporary and that made it seem okay. Do the big corporate IT job while she got herself set up – I used to run out flyers for her from work on the company printers – and there’d always be time to get back to the other stuff later. Always later. You get used to the money I guess and then… since the accident, since she’s been gone, I’ve just stuck at it. On some level I think I understand it as hanging on to something constant as everything else changed. Even if it was hanging on to something that was a bit crap it was still… still better than everything else.”

“What does your grief counsellor say?”

“That I’m intentionally hanging on to something constant because everything else changed. You don’t think I came up with that phrase on my own, do you? I think what I said to her was that work was utter shit but I preferred sinking knee deep into it every day for the chance to briefly pretend everything else was normal rather than quit and face up to getting on with my life on my own.”

“I prefer your version. Hers sounds a bit like solution architecture. Do you worry we’re getting too old now to change?”

“I don’t know if it’s age or a mindset or what it is. You heard the Lorde record?” asked Pete.

“Of course,” said Jen.

“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re not 19 anymore, it’d be not that surprising if it had passed us by. I really like it. Like, really like it. More than someone in their 30s should maybe. That last track…”

“Perfect Places?”

“Yeah, Perfect Places. It’s like my experience of being 19 wrapped up in three minutes. All that ennui and that weird mix of thinking you’re having the time of your life but already wondering whether you’re looking in the wrong places for the wrong things. I just listen to it and wonder how it would have sounded to me when I was 19. How she’s nailed that down in the moment rather than ten years later, looking back, I just don’t know.”

“This is a little off topic but do you want to know something funny?” said Jen.

“Go on…”

“I always used to think ennui was pronounced ‘enn-you-eye’. Had no idea that last syllable was like ‘we’.”

“Really? After you gave me such a hard time about Choux pastry? It’s a French word, isn’t it? So it’s pronounced more like ‘oui’. There’s just not a decent English equivalent for that particular brand of boredom and dissatisfaction.”

“Weltschmerz,” declared Jen.

“Bless you,” Pete retorted. “Or gesundheit I guess would be more appropriate.”

“Very funny. Weltschmerz. It’s like the German equivalent of ennui, isn’t it? Or near enough. Wonder why the Europeans got all the good words for a yearning, world weary sadness?”

“Make the most of them. We probably won’t be allowed to use them post Brexit.”

“Why are you thinking about being 19 again? Apart from the Lorde record I mean.” Jen’s voice dropped as realisation struck. “Didn’t you meet Georgie when you were about that age?”

“Yeah, yeah I did. She was the right thing I found, I guess…” Pete trailed off and the line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.”

The line went dead and Pete whispered to himself: “What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”

 

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring Chantenay carrots, bad French, Taylor Swift, and a stuffed rabbit

“You know that Taylor Swift song ?”

“I may be familiar with Swifty’s work. Which one ?”

“Shake It Off.”

“It’s a fine, fine thing. Didn’t think it’d be your cup of tea though.”

“I’m a broad church. But why’s there that whole bit about baking ?” asked Pete.

“Baking ? What are you talking about ?” replied Jen.

“You know… players gonna play, play, play, and then haters gonna hate, hate, hate…”

“Yeah, then it’s I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake.”

“But after that,” interrupted Pete, “it goes bakers gonna bake, bake, bake. Like she’s doing a shout out to sous chefs or something.”

“Sous chefs don’t do the baking you idiot. They’re like second in command chefs. Literally, they’re under chefs. Well, literally linguistically, I don’t know if they’re literally under them physically. Depends on how cosy the kitchen is I guess.”

“Really ? What’s that sous pastry then ?”

“Choux pastry you tit. What were you doing in French ?”

“J’étais pas attention,” replied Pete in a more than passable accent, enunciating each syllable of att-en-ti-on with relish.

“Non ?”

“Non, j’ai seulement pris parce que je pensais que le professeur était très sexy.”

“You’re a man of hidden talents. And did you really just take French because you liked the teacher ?”

“Oui. It’s why I ended up doing Drama and Economics as well. My qualifications are really weird but I have a lot of happy memories in my formative years of vaguely stern older women trying to teach me things.”

“That’s quite enough insight into your adolescence thanks and it doesn’t get you off the hook with the baking thing. She doesn’t sing bakers gonna bake, bake, bake. It’s heartbreakers gonna break, break, break. The whole point of the song is that people are going to try and play her, hate on her, break her heart, or be a faker but she’s not going to let it get to her. She’s just going to shake it off.”

Pete answered quietly, reciting part of the verse. “Shake it off. I’m dancing on my own, making moves up as I go. That’s what they don’t know…”

Jen sighed. “You too, huh ?”

“Oh god yes, me too. After a while I just couldn’t listen to all that miserable stuff anymore. I couldn’t work out whether my own sadness would fade if I didn’t keep stoking it with songs in minor keys so I went through a phase of just playing pop music. I must have listened to Shake It Off ten times a day for a couple of weeks.”

“You heard the Ryan Adams version ? Covered the whole album for some reason.”

“Yeah, I have but you know what ? It doesn’t make any difference. I hear more sadness in her version than his. I know he broke it all down and plays some sparse, stripped back, slowed down take on it but it’s all borrowed…”

“…that’s kind of how cover versions work…”

“…no, I know but you can borrow the song but make the emotion your own. Listen to Buckley’s Hallelujah. Or, while we’re on Adams, listen to his version of Wonderwall, it’s like he found depths in it that Noel Gallagher didn’t even know he’d started digging. But the pathos in Shake It Off is all there in Swift’s original. All sunny on the outside but all dancing on my own on the inside. It’s the girl who didn’t fit in at school, the person who always felt a bit out of place, someone who retreats to their self when they don’t know how to deal with the world.”

“You seem to have given this some thought… Are you sure it’s not just a song about shaking off your troubles and jigging about a bit ?”

“Ten times a day. Two weeks. I know that song like the proverbial back of my hand. It’s not about jigging about a bit. Not for me at least.”

“So…,” Jen paused. “I’m guessing it didn’t actually help you shake it off ?”

“I’m not sure what would help that. The sad songs aren’t doing it and the bouncy ones aren’t either. It doesn’t seem to matter what it is but I just see her or hear her in everything. Always in the most unexpected places. Did I tell you about Valentine’s Day ?”

“Nope, I don’t think so.”

“It had become a bit of an in-joke between us. You know Georgie, she didn’t really go for the whole hearts and flowers thing but underneath it all she was romantic. Not that she’d much admit it but it was there. She liked it if I surprised her with something. It didn’t have to be anything traditional but just something that showed a bit of thought, I think that was what she liked.”

“Is that what prompted the teddy bear thing you two used to do ?”

“Yeah,” Pete laughed. “Sort of. It started as a joke one Valentine’s Day when I bought her the cheesiest bear I could find. It was holding a pink heart that had ‘I love you’ written on it and it had a matching pink bow on its ear. I mean it was just this awful thing that we just had a big laugh about. She went out the next year and got me this massive stuffed rabbit, all doe eyed…”

“Rabbit eyed, surely ?” said Jen.

“It’s an expression. You’re in a very literal mood today. Doe eyed. They’re stuffed toys, they’re not anatomically correct representations of woodland creatures. Anyway, it was all doe eyed, floppy ears and it was holding…”

“Wait, don’t tell me… Was it holding a love carrot ?”

“Hey, leave my love carrot out of it,” laughed Pete.

“With pleasure. Although… If it’s that orange and knobbly then you really should see a doctor, you know ?” Jen was trying and failing to suppress a fit of giggles. “Would you say your love carrot is from the Nantes variety or more of a stubby Chantenay ?”

“What are the ones you get in the shops ?”

“There’s loads of different ones. From the small but tasty aforementioned Chantenay, more of a snacking carrot that one, right through to the Purple Dragon. Ten inches of purple carroty pleasure.”

“You just made that up,” Pete protested.

“No, seriously. When I was at Uni I used to do some part-time work at a greengrocers and so now, along with my degree in History, I have a pretty decent knowledge of root vegetables.”

“Must come in handy.”

“Well, until now, not so much but I can confirm with some authority that the Purple Dragon is an actual thing. It wasn’t that popular, I think the colour put people off, so I used to get given bags of them to take back for the house. We pretty much lived on carrots, Marlboro lights and Thunderbird that year.”

“Was always Asda sherry in our house. Foul stuff but it had the best alcohol content to pound note ratio. I don’t remember many carrots, or vegetables at all to be honest. There was a lot of tuna pasta and a lot of toast. Especially in the third year after me and Georgie got together. We used to sit up after a night out, just talking and drinking coffee, eating toast…” Pete trailed off and there was silence on the line for a few seconds.

“You were telling me about the Valentine’s thing…” Jen nudged.

“The rabbit. Right. She got me the big stupid floppy eared thing and the next year I got her something sillier and it just carried on. She always said that she didn’t like those staged, formal occasions when you were supposed to declare that you were in love but I don’t know. We thought we were being all ironic and above it all but I know we both used to really look forward to that time of year.”

“It was just a different way of taking part,” said Jen.

“I guess. Now though, after the accident, I wish we hadn’t. Every February is just going to be an emotional assault course. I can avoid the card shops easily enough but there’s Valentines stuff everywhere. Supermarkets, petrol stations…”

“Nothing quite says I love you like a bottle of de-icer.”

“That must be the most passive-aggressive Valentines gift you can get your lover.”

“I don’t know. A Chantenay carrot might run it pretty close.”

“I have a run of decent days, maybe even a week, but it’s just too hard when the world is screaming reminders in your face. If we hadn’t made Valentines a thing then it’d be okay but…” Pete trailed off.

“But it was your thing and you should treasure that. Find some comfort in the things that you did and shared rather than mourning the ones you won’t have.”

“You sound like my counseller.”

“That probably means we’re right, yeah ?” said Jen gently.

“You probably are. You both are. But it’s easy in the text book version of stages of grief and not so easy when you’re dealing with it…”

“I know. I’m sorry Pete. I didn’t mean…”

Pete interrupted softly. “Don’t apologise Jen. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I know you’re looking out for me and you’re right. I do hang on to the happy memories of her but they’re all jumbled up with the feeling that I’ve lost the best part of myself. The past just reminds me that I’ve lost my present and lost my future.”

“It’ll be a different future.”

“I know but I’’m not sure I’m ready to accept that yet.”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I’m sorry Pete but I’ve gotta go now, early start again tomorrow. Are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow.” Pete put down the phone and picked up the large, stuffed rabbit that was lying in front of him, held it up in front of his face. “Do you miss her too ?”

 


This is the third time I’ve felt the need to just let Pete and Jen talk to each other. Format is always the same and the title continues to borrow (steal) from Sufjan Stevens. I just like hearing them try to work things out.

The other two are here: Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring balloons, AA Milne, Sufjan Stevens and phone sex

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit