Radio on

 

There’s this film. It’s a story about a murder, an exploration, a road-trip from Londond to Bristol and out beyond, to the sea.  A story about boredom and factories and despite it having ended 34 years earlier, this is a story about the war for which England had clearly, for all its lights and industry, not really fully recovered, inside or out.

A story where a multi-millionaire pop star pretends for reasons of his own to be an Eddie Cochran fan playing guitar in a caravan, working in his dad’s garage somewhere way down the A4 that’s gone now, the same way the Driver’s old Rover car is gone now; the same way Utility furniture and big factories are gone now, along with the M4 Junction 2 skyline, even as far out as Windsor; the way telephones with dials and cords and big black and white televisions and rooms without central heating are gone now.

That was the world I grea up in. That was the world I expected to live in. And while lots of things are better, like not being cold all winter, a lot of it I miss in a way I don’t often think about, but the ache is still there, like an old tennis injury. Or a psychic scar.

Radio On has a simple story.  A man is found dead in his bath. One of his last acts was to send his brother three Kraftwerk cassettes for his birthday and beleive me, that would have been a pretty big present. The brother works, until he walks out of the job, as a radio DJ in a factory on the Great West Road, an in -house radio host lost in the kind of job that has gone now too, the kind of job some of us thought would be pretty cool; the kind of job that couldn’t now even vaguely possibly sustain a rented flat in Hammersmith. It did then. And also the sort of job that left the DJ bored and numb. Or maybe that was just the death of his brother.

We walks away, or rather drives away, to find….well, it isn’t made clear. A short haircut when that was pretty revolutionary in itself. Bristol. The cause of his brother’s death. The revolution, by way of Astrid Proll, the Red Army Faction and a new German maybe girlfriend, because the old one reckons he’s doing her head in with all his stuff.

The literally Dickensian decay of pretty much everything around oddly doesn’t clash with the music that to me at least, sounds new and now. The quaint old cars, the cold, the decision to shoot the film in black and white, the decision to shoot the film at all when it was so much of a non-road trip, down the M4, come off at Theale, pretty much the way I used to run that road, not crossing the M25 because there was no M25 to cross, off onto the A4, the old road of shepherds and stagecoaches and Johny Morris’s son’s pub, the Pelican. And snow that winter. I remember that too. The smell of the cold. The feel of its teeth in the bones of my arm.

And good contrasts. The jukebox left over from an imaginary benevolent USA blasts out “I saw the whole wide world’ as the Driver looks out of the bleak windows of an almost empty pub somewhere outside Newbury. The 1950s Rover rolls sedately along near Heathrow while a Jumbo jet soars into the future at the end of the bonnet. Except it doesn’t look like the future, this vision of England’s glory. Like the future, there didn’t seem to be one, back then.

And Ireland. And the Provos. And Bader-Meinhof. And squaddies hitch-hikinbg and spilling thier PTSD fallout stories, the same ones I’d heard of corss-border firefights, smashing down a flat’s front wall with a Browning .50 calibre, stories that never, ever made the papers because the papers, then as now, lied to give a one-sided story. We just didn’t know they did. We didn’t beleive they did, anyway. All of this airbrushed out of history now by the same papers, so we know that all terrorists are and always have been Moslems because it suits the government and its sponsors for us to think that.

These garages, these farms seen through the windscreen, the blue remembered thrills, the same farms and garages of lost discontent I saw through my own windscreen, out past Silbury Hill. And does any of this matter?

These cars, these phones, those demons are dead. Aren’t they? Cars always start these days. Nobody’s even seen a starting handle, nor a Rover P4 if they’re under 40, or Sting hamming it up in a caravan outside Hungerford, nor a garage where a man comes out to pump your petrol for you.

The Driver asks Sting: “Are you going places?”

Of course not.

This is all old stuff. I should leave it where it lay. We’ve all got new phones. But I can’t forget David Bowie stopped singing Heroes and asked us a question instead. Where Are We Now?

 

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Who’s Hegel?

For those of a certain age, this is an important question. One which should always but ALWAYS be followed by: “Did he know everything?”

It was and is a book, a film and for all I know a play too. I’d go and see it if it was. Because there is something of me in it and something of it in me. Apart from the fact that I went to a university and read Sociology (well ok, I read some Sociology, not very often and not very thoroughly or well) just like the anti-hero (who firmly believes he is the hero) Howard Kirk. For quite some time I wanted to be like him; a university lecturer, a social scientist, a man free from the fascistic oppression of owning property. I failed at that quite soon after, but I’ve somehow managed to put that right, almost without trying.

Howard Kirk was a Sociology lecturer who believed that conflict was always good. That right would triumph. That right was historic inevitability and Right was wrong. I didn’t share that view then, but I was young and fairly stupid. As a friend told me the other night, I was far too self-absorbed in my twenties.

“But you didn’t know me in my twenties. And you mean I’ve changed a lot, yes?”

She said no. Which was ok. Ish. But Howard Kirk, he was the man. Those were the times. There was this thing called social progress and another thing called class mobility. So quaint!! And free education all the way through university. Ludicrous, isn’t it? Almost anybody would have gone. In fact, they didn’t. Only about 5% of the school population ended up at uni in those days. The rest got jobs, for the most part, when unemployment was an un-massaged one million and you could get a job driving a lorry in the holidays on a car licence.

It was a time when there were student demos, when Labour voted not to join in with American wars and when squatting meant taking over a derelict Georgian house and making it livable again. This was too, a time when councils gleefully pulled down Georgian terraces instead of selling the houses off for a million each. They did it, unbelievably, in Bath, which is now a World Heritage Site thanks to its Georgian houses.

Hegel’s identity was asked about by one of Howard Kirk’s newer students. Whether he knew everything as asked by her friend, both of them keen to impress Howard with their enquiring minds, in much the same way that I overheard an equally keen student once at a Sociology lecturer’s party, thumbing through the pile of LPs and hesitating to chose one because as she said, she didn’t ‘know the Sociological significance of Genesis.’ As if she couldn’t not.

Times change. The past is another country. They do things differently there. And as Conrad would have had to have written it now, Mr Kirk, he dead.

 

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Silver-black phantom bike

Long ago and far away
Long ago and far away

I got my first bike at 16. Sort of. It was a FS1-E, a Yamaha, a moped. I had a horrible cheap blouson leather jacket of the kind the Fonz used to wear and that was about as far as the resemblance went. About as far as the time I went into the Polish deli in Trowbridge, thinking it was going to be like a deli in New York in the films, full of guys in fedoras and trenchcoats and women looking like Marilyn Monro. It wasn’t.

But anyway, the FS1-E was the first step to freedom. Then I got a Honda CD175, chiefly because it was bigger and a ‘real’ motorcycle, but there wasn’t much style about it. Then I passed my test on a Triumph 250 Trailblazer and stupidly swapped it for a Norton Dominator (steady on, old girl) that ran for about two months out of the two years I had it. And then this one.

I had other bikes after this. A BMW 1000. A Harley Sportster that started as an 883 and got bored out to 1,000cc with a fuel-injector bolted on. But this one in the picture, this one was different. This one was my bike.

I found it in a shop in Southampton in my second term at the university there. Someone had taken a Triumph 650 Tiger engine and bolted into a chromed Norton Slimline frame. It had started out as a cafe racer I think, but somewhere along the line someone had put higher handlebars on it. They hadn’t painted the tank, which is why it was £300. I sold my VW Beetle to get it.

It was the first big bike I’d had, but it didn’t seem to weigh much. I never knew what the top speed was because with the high bars on the wind was too much to deal with much above 85. It was happiest on the roads like the A36 back then, which was a windy two-lane with hardly any police on it ever, that snaked along the river valley out of Bath and out towards the Red Lion at Rode, then wound on out along another valley towards Salisbury, through Warminster, Codford St Mary and Codford St Peter. There was a difference. One had a garage that sold petrol.

Pretty much as soon as I got it to Bath the clutch packed up, but I learned how to change the worn-out clutch plates and put them in and true them up myself. I was proud of that.

The exhausts were another story. I didn’t like the look of the silencers on there and they were a bit rusty anyway, so to complete the look I got rid of them. It was insanely loud like that, so I went to Halford and bought two silencers stubs for a VW Beetle and rammed them into the pipes. That sort-of worked but it didn’t look right. Back to Halfords and a pair of slash-cut luke-warm car exhaust end-pieces. Job done.

Naturally, there were problems. The sidestand was always too  short and there was never a centre-stand. When I clipped a manhole cover leaned over, powering out of a bend in streaming rain on the last long straight under Salisbury race-course the back end flipped out to the right, then left, then right like a snake with its head caught. I knew if I touched the brakes that would be the end of everything and all I could do was the right and only thing, just roll the throttle back very, very slowly and somehow it stopped doing it. I never once dropped that bike, let alone hit the highway like a battering ram, whatever Mratloaf might have advised.

The biggest problems started after I set light to it though. I’d spent two weeks painting the fuel tank blacker than a very black thing indeed, spray, sand it back, spray, sand it back, spray, sand it back at about twelve-hour intervals until I ran out  of first paint, then spray varnish. At the end of that it didn’t look black, it practically shone as it absorbed all other colours. And equally naturally, I’d sprayed paint inside the tank so as soon as I put petrol in it for its inaugural run it flaked off and clogged the fuel line. A nineteen mile jounrey took over an hour and a half because it kept stopping until I got off and blew and sucked the crud out of the fuel line. Got to girlfriend’s house. Kicked it over to start it up. Blowback.

Because someone had junked the air filter there wasn’t anything to stop a backfire spurting flame out of the carburettor. But this was then and air filters were a bit effete. It didn’t matter. It was just like a match flaring. You just reached down and turned the fuel tap off and it would go out. No problem.

Except I couldn’t find the fuel tap and pulled the fuel line off instead, still sitting on the bike I’d just put two gallons of petrol into. I thought I probably couldn’t run faster than two gallons of exploding petrol so I’d better put it out. Luckily I had a full face helmet on, and a leather jacket fitting sweetly to my brain, as the Stranglers used to put it, and more to the point, long leather gloves on. I couldn’t see past half-way down my arm because of the flames. I remember that. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

By the time I got it out the fire had melted the insulation off the horn so it was fused ‘on.’ My girlfriend’s mother had seen it all happen. She came out of the house and said my bike had leaked oil on her drive. After that we found other transport and other things to do. The last ride on it ever was one late Spring evening alone, out around Larkhall and the combes running up to Charmy Down on the northeast edge of Bath before I rode back to the house in the picture, next to the little park where nightingales sang one night as I walked out of there. I remember every part of that slow, sad ride, feeling the cold start to seep into the bones of my legs, smelling that blend of hot oil and cold petrol and Spring and the smell of just being alive there and then, in Bath, a long time ago. It was my bike.

 

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Repurposing

I’m doing some new things recently. New to me, anyway. But one of the things I’m doing I’ve done before and it still gladdens me every time I do it.

That Haile Sellassie lived here, you know.
That Haile Sellassie lived here, you know.

Bath on a Saturday morning, Walcot Street in the mist rising off the river flowing alongside it. OK, it’s changed. There are no coke stoves or dogs on a piece of strong, nobody claiming to be a carpenter because he can join two bits of ply at right angles (but interestingly, according to a conversation I overheard at the flea market, still not-really-antiques that can be spotted by the injudicious use of Posidrive screws). No Hat and Feathers, no Mad Carol, no Lucy in a jumpsuit, no car radios unexpectedly for sale, nor smoke billowing out of them when the vendor wired them up backwards on a 12 volt car battery or a whole host of other things that used to be. Luckily, no-one lighting a fire to keep themselves warm in the car park now where the cattle market used to be, either.

The past is another country. They do things differently there. But where would places like Bath be if they forgot their past? As the song from Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads told us, it’s the only thing to look forward to.

But some of it’s still there. I was there this Saturday. I was going to climb Beechen Cliff, but the mist was still down and there was no point, so I walked up past the Abbey. The first thing I saw was a 1930s print, some Boy’s Own illustrated tale of pilots, back in the days when aeroplanes were called that and had four wings and two propellers, when bounders wore bow ties and only sailors wore beards. £10 well-spent. I had promised myself I wasn’t buying anything, but then I remembered the time in Oxford on another Saturday morning when for another £10 I turned down the chance of buying what I’m pretty sure was an original artwork that illustrated a Biggles book. A chat and a little recollection of old times with the woman in a fur coat on the stall that chilly morning, two steps away from a jumper exactly like the one I’d had in mind and thought was going to be about £200 so I wasn’t having that this winter. Except someone else had worn it, apparently for about ten minutes, so that saved £190.

Just around the corner, back up on the street and I found a kettle. I’m not really a copper kettle sort of person, but I have this boat. OK, it isn’t in the water and the chances of it getting in the water look slimmer each week this year, but I can still go and sit inside it and drink tea. Or at least I could if I had a kettle. But I don’t want to get Alzheimer’s from some horrible aluminium thing and I don’t want a shiny brand new piece of German design (well ok, I do, a lot, but it wouldn’t look right on the boat) so I was stuck. Until I went into the charity shop and found it.

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As it was. I think it’s 1950s.

A couple of minutes with some Brasso and rubber gloves and it polished up a treat and no error gorblimey guvnor. It looks great and fits right into the wooden boat vibe that goes on in a wooden boat, surprisingly.

A print, a jumper and a nice kettle, all for £30. But more than that, being part of it again, Bath on an autumn Saturday morning.

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Not long after. It’ll do, I think.

Those who’ve read this stuff before will know I went to university here. I grew up  here (discuss, with reference to some laughably inappropriate partner choices which would have been more laughable if they’d happened to somebody else, I think), or at least, twelve miles away. When I was about eight my father used to take me to Bath early on Saturday mornings. I was so excited about this I used to try to sleep in my clothes because I had to get up so early. It never worked – I could never sleep like that. But we still went to Bath. The market I sat in is still there. I bought some cheese there this time, rather more than half my life away. I wrote a poem I was going to call that, but it got called something else instead. Wrongly, I think now. And there, as some people know, lies another tale, from and for another time.

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All I Want

Francis Shelley did a marvellous song called All I Want. This isn’t it.

 bath abbey

All I Want

 

All I want is a Marks & Spencer jumper

Actually, that isn’t even vaguely true.

It’s not the woolly jumper part I want

And need so much but the fact

It would be bought for me by you

Against the cold and I remember

The smell of the cold each winter

The feel of it in my arms

Much as I remember you there too

And walking with blue jeans

And grey turtleneck sweater

That last year of school

Walking with you, walking with blue –

But it always stopped there.

It was a poem I tried to write for you,

Whoever you were going to be

I never really knew till maybe this evening.

The memory of your head on my arm

Bringing me back to you this dawn today

In the still quiet of the birds waking

Then singing the Spring home again.

And maybe this time it’ll all come true.

I can still feel the shadow of your head

Resting on my arm and I don’t know yet

Before this new year ahead if I can dare to hope,

Wondering if this Christmas you’ll take me to the shops,

Bath sparkling around us at the frosty end

Of Michaelmas term, spotlights glowing

On Jacob’s Ladder climbing to Heaven on the front of the abbey,

Chestnut sellers doing well, the choir outside Boots

Heralding angels among us in our coats,

Bright lights all around us, halos of frost too

So sparkling, so bright it could all almost be true.

That’s all I want for Christmas:

A Marks & Spencer jumper,

Lambswool not merino,

Found and bought,

Wrapped and hidden

For me by you.

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High on a hill

There is a green hill far away. We sang about it in Sunday school, but it’s more true now then when I first sang it, back where all the hills were green and not far away at all, just a cycle ride away.

I wrote this today about something over a year ago. I don’t know if it works or not. I thought it did when I wrote it.

This is the place I grew up, the place I'm from, this land of green hills far away. But somehow, very close to me all the time.
This is the place I grew up, the place I’m from, this land of green hills far away. But somehow very close to me all the time.

High On a Green Hill

 

I met her in a pub when we were younger

Half our lives away; I met her on Facebook when she was ill.

I gave her a book of mine to read, while she lay

Under a blanket in the chill of an Andalucian winter,

Thick patterned wool around her thin shoulders,

Cold tiles under her long feet. She had a plan

To start a marmalade factory but something happened

To the farmers collective or the orange crop,

I didn’t really know.

And then there was the husband

And then there was the son and it was complicated,

You know how it goes sometimes.

I thought of her all that winter, pale and cold

Her light burning lower.

You can die when you’re our age.

Or anytime, it’s just we know that now.

She had pneumonia, she had blood tests,

She thought she had something else and

We shared the great day when she could walk in the sun

Three clicks to the village and rest and back again

On her own, by email, the way people do now.

After the marmalada corporation somehow didn’t happen

We met face-to-face the second time in our lives;

A university reunion.

She was the only reason I wanted to go.

She didn’t drink any more.

I was about ten years too late for that plan

But I didn’t know that when I offered her a glass of wine

And as she said “if I drink I have no limits,”

As I tried so hard to catch the waiter’s eye

For a whole bottle her friend kicked my leg under the table,

Hard and then harder until she said

“And this time I’ll probably die, so no,

I won’t have a drink. Thanks.”

She drank fizzy water.

Apparently there are different tastes,

Just not the ones I thought she meant.

We ate while I tried to hide the tinted sin of my glass

And talked and went quite early to our separate rooms.

When someone doesn’t drink, what else do you do?

But in the morning, fresh, we walked through sacred damp Bath

To the café I’d found that I thought she might like.

And she did. And I did, when the waitress assumed

She was my wife. It felt like it could have gone that way,

In a different life. After breakfast we walked along the canal,

Early Spring and suddenly it’s May and maybe,

Just maybe everything would turn out ok and

After she told me where she’d been and I didn’t need

Or even want to top her stories and win,

Because just walking there with her,

It felt as if I had for once,

As if I’d already won,

Although what that was

I didn’t really know.

She played electric bass and me, I played

A bit of guitar and sax.

Our first gig was outside the city, later.

I thought I’d need to drink but somehow I didn’t.

In the shadow of a church up there on the hill,

In the mist outside the pub door.

I didn’t finish my drink, blowing warm

If not hot and maybe close to cool.

She was taking a taxi to the airport at four.

After we’d all judged the gig a total success

And packed away our rocknroll music stands,

Our funky bifocal reading glasses,

She zipped her Hofner into its flight case

As I said don’t call it, I’ll drive you there

And she said ok. We both knew

It wasn’t really the right direction

But part of her wanted to stay.

A little bit. Just a little bit.

We bought factory-made hummus

Second-hand in a Sunday supermarket,

Some grapes and bread on its sell-by date,

Flavoured water I’d never drunk,

Something with a hint of lime and ate

Parked on a grass verge in my car,

High on a green hill in the sluicing rain,

Next to a stone barn grey against the black sky,

The food unimportant until it was time

For her to catch her plane, nearly,

Or anyway drive her to the airport.

We parked again and haggled again

Over petrol money I didn’t want from her,

Paid the car park, carried her bags

Then watched her smoke a cigarette outside.

Before we hung around Departures

Until it really was time for her to go.

We’ll do it again some time.

All of us, maybe. Sooner than before

We’ll be high on a green hill again.

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Walcot Nation

I lived in Bath a long time ago. In those days a lot of the buildings were black with 200 years of soot from coal fires but it was a bustling, busy place. It still is, but where once Walcot Street was full of combat jackets and patchouli oil, today it’s Range-Rover parking and shops selling bathroom taps for half a term’s student grant. There was a fabulous market there on Saturdays if you ever needed a cheap car radio, definitely not stolen, oh dear me no. You tested it by clipping a car battery to the cut power lead once the guy selling it had peeled back the insulation, and taping another lead to any speaker lying around the stall. Bath has changed. This poem is a little of how it was.

haile selassie house

A WESTERN SUN

I hear that song, still feel the heat of a western sun

Those years ago but now –  and it’s always now, in my head,

Always the time I first heard it aged seventeen

And my, those ten years just flew by, didn’t they?

That’s just when it was.

I can see the blurred flag flapping in slow motion

Snapping in the damp wind of my false memories

Of long haired men marching to the war we despised

But that was someone else’s war ten years before,

Something that was all in our minds

As we wandered up Walcot Street to the Hat & Feathers,

Leather jackets and silk scarves, the day of the festival

A sweat salt tang stayed on our lips

Our battle salve patchouli hazed our dreams

That blurred afternoon and back then we dared to dream

Not about BMWs and ISAs or chartered accountancy

Or a thrilling carer in actuarial statistics and dear God

If I’d only known that the loose connections, the loops

Of if-this-then-that in my head, the spurting synapses undammed

By dope and cursed by my teachers at a country school

Could have bought me half the grey stone town I grew up in

By now. Probably. But stop. But stop.

Never go down this road

Where half the streetlights aren’t working,

Lit only by the dipped beam of my memory

Coming from a car I haven’t had for twenty years

A faulty bulb flickering whenever I put the wipers on.

You know that if you take this track you’ll only get a hundred yards or so

Until a cold girl in a warm car, silhouetted against the trees

Lit like the backdrop of a play, so cold outside;

The girl in the sheepskin coat will say

‘What if there’s nothing there, the other side of the gate?’

The second it appears in the headlights.

Even then you felt her voice would hunt your dreams,

Sniffing you out while you sleep, wherever you hide at night.

But that flag, the flapping ripple of cloth,

And the hair blown across her forehead and somewhere

The taste of tears as well as the kiss still on her lips;

The army coats and the smell of goats when her bag got rained on;

The time she did, she really did tie red ribbons in her hair

And small golden bells. They looked golden anyway,

Borrowed from the mirror on her dresser,

Bought from a headshop one Saturday afternoon in Bath.

Can you believe those words, now?

This long since Princess Margaret and her happy dusted chums

Played with a restaurant and a farm to feed it, up on the Swindon road,

The way Peter Starstedt said it then, just for a laugh, ah ha ha.

Parsenn Sally. Later, in the eighties a waitress paused

When a customer pushed his napkin to the floor,

Measuring the length of her skirt as she stopped

Looked to the audience, fifty or so of us willing

To show the colour of our money,

Waiting to see the colour of her underwear,

A fiver on white, ten on black,

Wild bets on something awful like cerise

As she put a finger mocking to her lips, shook her head,

Bent her knees a little, just to tease, then flexed her leg,

Kicked the napkin under the nearest table

To a round of applause.

“Another bottle of fitou over here, if you would”

The appreciative click of credit cards on glass tables.

“And have one for you.”

Bath where Regency houses lured London workers with their siren song

Bath where water streamed down Royal Crescent walls,

The lead flashing long gone, during the war probably,

When patriotic householders bore the loss not just of sons

But irreplaceably the 1820s cast iron trellices, rococco awnings,

Gates and railings cropped and sawn and smelted to beat the Hun,

Our loss; as if cast iron Spitfires ever flew

Or steel swallows ever perched in Larkhall Mansions.

Scars from bomb splinters still pock the stonework near M&S,

The slashed birthmark of our time

Still there if you know where to look

Past the ghosts of open markets, joss-sticks and motorcycles

Cafes full of lean dogs and coke stoves,

Not a baby buggy in sight.  All of this emblazoned on our tattered flag.

All of this our banner as we marched

Under the stained pennants of our duvets towards now.

Come the revolution in Walcot Street.

Come the glorious day.

We didn’t see the bathroom showrooms coming.

We thought it would turn out ok.

 

 

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The smell of freedom

Patchouli used to be the smell of the tribe. It’s a dark, earthy smell that’s hard to describe because it meant so many things. There’s a coldness to it too, along with the warm, fuzzy buzz it puts in your head, the feeling it puts in your heart that for once, just this once, we could have a revolution without blood on the streets.

Well we had a revolution. It was called Thatcherism. It wasn’t much to do with patchouli and there was blood.

I tried to get some patchouli in Bath two weekends ago, to fly the flag when I went to a university reunion. Bath didn’t have any which was odd where they may as well have crop-dusted the whole city with the stuff once upon a time. I got some patchouli massage oil in Body Shop a few years ago but that’s another story. It’s not the same.

That smell was how you recognised the tribe, a not-very-secret code. The police and Drugs Squad and Customs officers always assumed it meant you were in possession of a controlled substance. I got made to turn my bag and pockets out on the street in Bath when I was stopped by two plain clothes officers whose hep-to-the-jive antennae told them ‘if you’ve got patchouli then you’ve got dope,’ as Poppy said in Not Your Heart Away. Like any assumption, a lot of the time it was wrong. They’d have been better-off targeting people who drank milk. Some did, some didn’t. In itself, patchouli was nothing to do with it.

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Head Shops

After ten days of being more oddly disturbed than usual after that weekend, remembering someone’s incredulity when I said I’d only used two aftershaves in the past ten years, I decided to fly the flag again. I went to buy some patchouli.

There aren’t those little head shops where I live in rural Suffolk, nowhere the whole shop stinks of the goatskin-soled knitted slippers that might keep your feet alternatively warm or might equally give you anthrax. Nowhere with brass bells on strings and a wall full of dried beans and joss sticks and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics and tiny Chinese porcelain bowls. There probably aren’t any shops like that anywhere now. I remember when there were.

jugual
One of the all-time great albums. Click it and see.

There was a gallery and gift shop in Woodbridge that had a suspicious number of dangly things that might be mistaken for mobiles hanging from the ceiling when I went in yesterday. The blond woman who ran the shop was about my age. I hung back a bit while she was trying to sell some tourists a painting of the quay. After they’d decided they were really nice pictures but not quite nice enough today I asked if she might know anywhere that sold patchouli, for the first time in decades. She was out around the counter in seconds, eyes darting from side to side. Old habits. I might as well have asked if she had any king-size strawberry Rizlas and a lighter.

patchouli
What seems to be the problem, officer?

“This shop used to be a chemist. People sometimes think – But no. We have some joss sticks. I might have some patchouli ones. Cinnamon. Amber.  No. No patchouli. Nobody’s asked for that for years. That used to be how you knew, when I was a teenager!’

It was. What it was we knew we didn’t really know. But we knew. We didn’t know where to find any, either of us. Maybe The Purple Shop in Ipswich, she said, but it sounded exactly like the mythical Purple Shop in both our heads, too good to be true and guaranteed if it actually did exist to be closed when you got there. Not worth the drive to find out. It won’t be there anyway. Maybe it’s our age.

You can still get that smell, now and then, if you try. It’s called an essential oil now, but it always was. I eventually got some in Holland & Barrett’s aromatherapy section. They said it would help me relax. When I got home I unscrewed the top and held it under my nose and was about as relaxed as if I was caught in an avalanche that hurled me straight back to the Walcot Nation in my mind, before the picture framers and bathroom galleries moved in. Somewhere very precious where we can all go only for a little while, with the right kind of nose and one sniff of patchouli.

 

 

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The meaning of meaning

This has been a strange, unsettling week when I have made excuses to myself not to get down and do some real keep-going-till-you-can’t writing again, the kind I was doing around Christmas, finishing Not Your Heart Away.

Unsettling because of an unexpectedly wonderful weekend. I’d never gone to university reunions before and didn’t really want to go to this one, but I’d volunteered to bring instruments for a band that hadn’t played for 30 years and wanted to meet someone I’d talked to a lot on Facebook and who’d helped me a lot in that weird editing and re-writing time.

Writing what you know is the only kind of writing I’m much good at. I’m not imaginative. I can invent scenes and dialogue but as it’s confessions time I’m going to get this out in the open. I nick stuff. I steal things that happened to other people. I take things that don’t belong to me, pasts, incidents, histories, love affairs, car crashes, all kinds of things I’ve heard over the years. Then I jumble them up with other happenings and events to make a more-or-less believable whole. I think of someone’s voice and I can write dialogue for a character nothing to do with the real person I’m thinking of, then glue someone else’s past onto them and throw in something that happened to someone else as well. But I have to keep thinking of the real individual’s voices, or sometimes just the shape of their face, a different one for each character, or for me, anyway, it doesn’t work. Once I can remember their voice I know the kinds of things the character could say, or just couldn’t in a million years, not in that way. Someone asked me if I’d like to teach creative writing. I would, except I don’t think I’m actually very creative. I re-assemble memories. Maybe that counts. But it all got very confusing, sitting in bed in the small hours, on my own, re-creating memories of people I’d melded together in a very real place I ached to see again, a place that doesn’t exist although once it very much did, very much the way I wrote it.

When I was a boy we kept chickens. I remember when I was about two years old going to collect eggs and being told ‘Don’t run or you’ll drop the eggs, and they’re for Daddy’s tea.” Except I don’t. I don’t remember it really. It’s fake. It was repeated so many times I think all I remember is the memory of the memory, not the thing at all. I remember the chickens all in a coop, for example, but when I found some old photos by accident recently there they all were, loads more of them than I remember, surrounding me in a garden and no wire-mesh in sight.

roybatty1
Rutger Hauer. There you go girls. Don’t say I don’t do anything for you.

It reminded me of one of the clues Decker clung to to track down the replicants in Blade Runner. Super-realistic replicants, human-like robots had come back to the Earth they were banished from. They were so realistic that the only way to make sure they weren’t human was to test their empathy, something robots and most modern politicians don’t have and can’t fake, the most human condition. Having feelings for others who aren’t going to benefit you; helping people because they need help, not because they’re going to pay you.  Ridiculously old-fashioned, isn’t it? What sort of un-reconstructed sanitised-for-your-convenience Commie claptrap is that? It would never catch on now, after Thatcher and Blair.

The clue Decker picked up on was the thefts. Because the robots, Pris and Kowalski and Rutger Hauer were manufactured aged 25 or so, they had to make-up memories of their non-existent childhoods. They broke into houses and stole family photo albums so that they could learn a memory, so that they could say ‘look, that was our dog when I was six at the lake that summer.’ To be convincingly human they needed to learn the things humans forget.

I’d forgotten what Bath was like. It was never all brilliantly wonderful although like all nostalgia, it was better than it is now. But there was something wonderful about not so much remembering as simply being a part of a place, of knowing what was in that empty shop, hearing about someone else’s monumental getting-arrested bust-up, someone else’s propositioning as a routine part of a student job, while walking the very same street where I remember being screamed at by someone so young, so pretty, so upset a long time ago, so loud they woke the sleeping pigeons.

I’d forgotten how much I’d wanted to play in a band and never did until last week. I was so nervous about it I nearly didn’t go, or maybe I’d go and pretend to have food poisoning or some nonsense like that to get out of it because I knew I was going to mess it up. But then I had a talk with myself and so did other people and I did the human thing. I didn’t steal the photos, didn’t make up the memories. I just took a chance of falling flat on my face in public and because of that maybe, I didn’t.

All week I’ve been thinking perhaps I should have done that, the most foolish, self-indulgent thinking of all, wishing for another past. Maybe I should have learned to play the saxophone and played just what I feel, as Steely Dan used to sing. To be fair, I did my fair share of drinking scotch whisky all night long, but I think it takes a little more than that. And no use to think that and anyway, as I slowly realised, I pretty much did. Somewhere along the way obviously apart from some missed notes and a reed that just loses it after about half an hour from brand new and I don’t know why, obviously I did learn a bit. And because I never bothered to learn to read music then playing just what I feel is the only way I can play at all. I don’t drink as much now though, certainly not all night long. It gets in the way of the memory. And I came close enough to dying behind the wheel one New Year a long time gone not to want that particular exit.

The girl who sang said she felt like she was walking on air all week. I felt like we were all of us walking on sunshine. It’s still here.

 

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Not Your Heart Away – The Sequel

Brilliant news today. Another old friend I’ve just got back in touch with thanks to the wonders of Facebook has put me in touch with someone who’s pointing me at another film production company, so I’ve got to hack the Not Your Heart Away script down and pitch it again. Really exciting, even if I think I’m going to have to re-write it from scratch as opposed to converting the book format to film. Come on, it’s the first time I’ve done this, after all. Got to find an agent for the film as well as the book but apparently as it’s already written, not so much of an issue as with books.

And the second and possibly more but at least equally brilliant piece of today is that I think I’ve got the plot and the format for the sequel to Not Your Heart Away. I’ve been having a conceptual problem with it, which is a fancy way of stating the obvious. Which is that Ben’s first person eighteen year-old narrator self can only talk about things he’s seen or someone told him about, which is about right for an eighteen year old. The obvious snag is that given he doesn’t meet Claire again for years, how does he describe what happens to her in the 1980s? You see the problem?

But I think I’ve solved it, after some self-indulgent rambling on several people’s Facebook messages I co-opted to scribble some ideas down and get them clear in my head. Sorry about that. I really should have used a notebook, not your space.

The thing is, Claire’s still got things to say to me. I can hear her in my head, even more clearly after this weekend and the help I got walking around the city.

‘Come on. Let me tell them. Let me tell them and – and I’ll read you some poetry. Perhaps one evening. Would you like that?’

And as I would too, very much, I’ve got to start writing it now. But I’ve got to think of a title. The True Thorn maybe. Given that both Ben and Claire misunderstood what it is, was and will be.

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