Saturday, 31 December 2011

For Emma From 27 years ago

I know straightaway it's her. She looks a little tired, a little distracted but so does everyone. It's the afternoon December 23 after all. the last proper shopping day before Christmas and we're feeling the tremours that herald the coming of the retail earthquake that is man-dash. Those hours when 99.7% of all the world's perfumes are sold to drunk men suddenly gripped by fear at the thought of their significant others waking to Not Enough from Santa come The Day. It's also when all the Kate Bush albums get bought. And this year it was the period when four million copies of Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman were shifted. (These are facts btw. Authenticated numbers.)

But I'm not writing about the panicky shopping habits of men. I'm writing about the fact that in Leeds last week I walked past Emma Dawson - the girl who broke my heart in the summer of 1984. And then kept breaking my heart for most of 1985. Though that's wrong isn't it? When hearts get broken the fault generally lies with the owners. They are often responsible for having recklessly put those fragile hearts in places where they were bound to get smashed. Or they were criminally negligent in giving them to people who didn't realise what they were - and who would have have refused them if they had known: 'It's your heart you say? Take it back. why the fuck would I want that?'

Anyway, the point is I met Emma in Colchester in the Autumn of 1983, gave her my heart in 1984 and by that summer it was pretty much busted and now - 27 and a half years later - I was in Leeds with my smallest boy - the young Judomaster - getting ready to buy Kate Bush albums, Caitlin Moran books and scent for my wife of twelve years. There she was - tired, distracted but emphatically herself - walking towards me  looking pretty much exactly the same as she did back then. She was a good-looking young woman and now she was a good-looking older woman. She'd added a bit of tired gravitas to her white rose teenage looks

So what happened next?

Nothing happened next. We didn't even speak. We passed within three feet of each other. If I was a betting man (and I am actually) I'd give good odds that she saw me and, like me, considered the stop and chat and decided against it. It was raining. We were in a time pressured situation vis-a-vis the buying of Bush/Moran/Scent...

What was great for me was to feel Nothing Much. certainly no pain. Though there was a sudden flush of embarrassment. Embarrasment's ok - we can all live with that. Just as well isn't it?  It felt pretty good to feel Nothing Much good enough that after she'd passed I nearly turned around to catch up with her just so I could feel Nothing Much all over again. But that would have been weird.

Because there was a period when I couldn't think of her without filling up (yes I know it's pathetic. But I was a twenty year old Smiths fan. The Go Betweens Spring Hill fair was my favourite album of that year. I was sensitive. I read poetry.)

The thing about Emma Dawson was that she was always out of my league. Palely beautiful with dark hair and an easy laugh... It was enough, more than enough. those are dangerous weapons in the wrong hands.

 Thrown together at Essex University (her: Art History of course. Me: English and European Literature also of course) we hung out more or less constantly from Freshers Week. We were mates and I never expected anything else. And actually I had a bit of a crush on Camilla Beswick who played for my five-a-side team the Bash Street Kids (we were the only team in the league to have a girl playing for us so we were sort of always moral victors even when we lost. Which was most of the time. It wasn't Camilla's fault btw - she was pretty good. A regular Gregory's Girl.)

Anyway Emma kept coming round to my room in BR3 - one of the giant towerblocks at Essex. The ones that were meant to be a modernist architectural representation of the hills around Sienna but were more like the outskirts of Stalinist-era Murmansk.

She would stay for hours. She would listen to me go on about - well everything. Music. Books. Politics. Cooking. I hope I didn't give her little lectures on Art History but I wouldn't put it past me. she would listen to my records. She would laugh with me and at me and expertly make the thinnest of  rollies. She used the word rebarbative in conversation which would normally be enough to get me hooked but I still didn't consider her as a potential girlfriend. We were mates. Mates.

Then one night she came round and made it very very plain that she had no intention of leaving at all. I say she made it very plain but it took till about four in the morning before I started to get the message. In fact it took until her tongue was in my mouth and one hand on the crotch of my skinny black jeans while the other crept underneath my baggy paisley shirt before I really got the gist. I could be a bit dim in those days. An aute awareness of body language not really being my thing.

And what I wonder did Emma see in me? I looked like an exotic wading bird back then. A kind of anxious scruffy crane or something. So skinny (I was nine stone) I was all shin and knees and pointy hips, pointy elbows and long pointy beak. And lets not forget the pointy  hair that was both black and Krazy kolor blonde - the kind of two tone look that would later become surprisingly popular with Northern milfs running amok on hen nights. Quite possibly it was my apparent indifference to her looks.

Anyway by the end of that night we were lovers which meant, of course, that we were no longer mates. This took a few weeks to become really obvious but I went from being an opinionated motormouth, happy to go his own way do his own thing - to only wanting to be where Emma was.And to do whatever it was that she was doing. I agreed with her enthusiastically all the time. About everything - even when she was patently talking bollocks.  I worried if she wasn't around. More than that - I was bewitched by fear. Where was she? what was she doing? who was she doing it with? Even if she was in a Art History seminar then I might fret about who she was sitting with about shared jokes with her tutor. I know what those pre-Raphaelites were like. Sex mad the lot of them. And the academics who studied them were even worse...

In short in a matter of days I had become one of the less likeable Nick Hornby characters.

As I say this transformation took a while to manifest itself. I think I probably had the good sense to keep it well hid for a  few weeks. And we did have a good time. We played a lot of pool badly. We had a lot of adventurous sex (I was 20 - it was ALL adventurous to me then). We saw some bands. I remember her watch - an 18th birthday present - came off in the mosh-pit at a Sisters of Mercy gig. She was crying and so I plunged amid all the shiny shiny boots of leather to try and find it. A few members of the sisterhood wondered - naturally enough - what the fuck I thought I was doing? Word spread until, in an act of large-scale generosity as surprising as it was gallant, the whole mosh pit was on its knees looking for Emma Dawson's bloody watch. This must have looked very weird from the stage and I've often wondered what Andrew Eldritch, the main Sister, made of it. The watch got found btw and as soon as it was restored to its owner the moshing began again with redoubled fervour as if to make up for the minutes lost to random kindness.

She met my parents. And then the first year was over and she went back North to Tadcaster (she was the first Northern person I'd ever known) and I went to my mum's new flat in Enfield and got a holiday job in the gun factory. (luxury mews apartments now of course - because that's what we do these days. Put shoddy houses where once we used to make things)

It was an interesting place but a boring job and I spent most of day dreaming up witty erudite but mostly very, very long letters. at least one a day, often two, occasionally three. There might have been one day when I sent a letter on the way to work, another at the afternoon break (written at lunch) and another on the way home (written on the bus). I'm guessing I was pretty unhappy. I knew no one in Enfield, the job was hard but badly paid, everyone seemed to know more than I did about everything (even though I was the only one with certificates). They even beat me at frigging scrabble.

I think I might have put her off a bit. What would you think if you got three or four letters a day from someone? thank Christ we didn't have mobile phones then. I'm sure the guy who sends four long love letters a day in 1984 is the same kind of sinister sap who sends half hourly texts these days.

Anyway she invited me up to Tadcaster for A Big Family Party this was a celebration of her sister's 21st, her mum's 50th and her parents 25th wedding anniversary. A bit of a do in other words.

And it was pretty obvious Em had cooled. I was left at home 'making a mix tape' for the party while she went off to York shopping. I was left to play Subbuteo with her 13 year old brother and, at the party itself  had to have a million conversations with tweedy Aunts about my incongruous parrots hair (by now I had added royal blue to make a vivid tricolour of my own head. Black, yellow, blue.) Emma was pretty much nowhere to be seen. She - perhaps sensibly -got wasted and had to be put to bed by her mum before nine.

And then finally the next morning I was put out of my misery, given my P45 in a short conversation by a hungover but not in the least tearful Emma -  and that should have been that. Unfortunately my pride and my dignity had gone missing along with my heart and I spent the next year trying to get her back. This involved a certain amount of begging and pleading, some crying, quite a bit of following her around - all the time maintaining the desperate fiction that we were still mates. We even made out. A snog and a fumble around christmas that ended with Emma saying 'I bet you thought you were in there...' before calling a cab.

Trying to win Emma back did also somehow seem to involve getting off with her friends. The logic of this escapes me - but the logic of more or less everything I did back then escapes me. The past isn't just a foreign country sometimes it seems like an entire alien planetary system.

And then one day I woke up cured. More or less just like that. One day I was a snivelling wreck who - had it not been for advanced cowardice and a fear of needles - would have had Emma Forever tattooed in Sanskirt across his back. And the next I wasn't really bothered about her. Weird, huh? Or just being twenty? And a year later I was a dad - but that's a whole other story...

Emma did however have another big humiliation to inflict. Or, rather, I had had one more big humiliation to inflict on myself courtesy of her presence.

In 1992 I had just split up with my daughter's mum and was living - still in Colchester - in a terrace with a remarkably tolerant old schoolfriend. And I got a letter inviting me to Emma's wedding in York. She was getting married to a guy who'd been in the year below of us at uni. And I decided to go. And I decided to take my friend Rachel. Now Rachel was vivacious, striking. The kind of dirty blonde that regularly got blokes following her home. I suppose I fancied her a bit but hanging out with Rachel could be tiring what with all the shoals of sharp-faced men swirling around showing their nasty little teeth. And she preferred criminals anyway. We were emphatically platonic and - at the time - proper pals. Chums (later we shared a house and within a couple of weeks weren't speaking but that was all in the future).

R drove me North and the wedding was a lavish affair. I was, oddly, the only one of E's friends from Uni to make it up there and they missed a treat I have to say. Mr Dawson had done his daughter proud. York Moot Hall with a free bar. No - really, really free. You could (and I proved this by empirical research) go up to the bar and ask for a dozen King Edward cigars and get them. You could ask for ludicrous combinations of drinks and get them. 'Sextuple tequila with vintage malt chaser, Sir? - Certainly coming right up?' Anyway everyone got thoroughly horribly trashed - it would have been very rude not to.

Everyone was very complimentary about my foxy girlfriend Rachel and I didn't bother going through the whole 'she's actually not my girlfriend she's just a mate' routine. Too complicated and I was enjoying being a E's wedding with the best looking girl in the room. I was enjoying it right up until the moment Rachel got off with Pete, E's little brother - no longer 13 but 21and by now interested in things other than Subbuteo. No longer all that little either. As far as the party was concerned I was being publically cuckolded by my current girlfriend at my former girlfriend's wedding. Plus I'd already told E - in fun. In FUN Christ can't you guys take a joke - that it 'should have been me. It should have been us getting married.' She nearly pissed herself. Practically choked on her rum and wkd or whatever...

I'd also had a brief conversation in the bogs with her dad where he had had laughed about how fucking ridiculous I'd looked the weekend of the party where Emma had dumped me. How horrified they'd all been when I turned up. He assured me it hadn't just been my hair... which made me feel great as you might imagine.

That was 1992. And it wasn't actually the last time I'd run into her. That had been in 2004 when I'd gone out for dinner in a country gastro pub out in the wilds of west yorks. It was my wife's birthday and we were out wih my in-laws and as we arrived E was in there - yes, getting wasted actually - with some friends. We spoke briefly. She was divorced, two kids 8 and 6, working in business - a finance director for some big company actually (when I knew her she was not only doing Art History - and doing it half-heartedly - but she could barely count her change and managed her finances pretty recklessly as I remember: spending quite a bit on shoes, pale make-up and fancy eyeliner. Sisters of Mercy fan remember...) and she was living in this village all of a mile from my new home. At the urging of one of her friends we swapped mobile numbers.

Later, at the urging of my mother-in-law- I ripped her number up.

And now seven and a bit years on from that last awkward encounter - she was walking towards me in Leeds City Centre at Christmas a time when we reflect on the past and all that it means.

Should we have stopped. Caught up and what has happened since? Laughed together at how that idiot boy in the skinny black jeans and cockatoo hair became the balding gentleman she was now talking to. Talked about the vandalism of time, swapped affectionate stories of our children. Maybe I could have casually mentioned my published novels, my plays, my time working on a Top Television Soap Opera (disastrous but she wouldn't have to know that). Maybe I could have invited her to the launch of my next book (only three months away now - I mention this just in passing you understand...) And she could have told me about... oh whatever is going on in the world of finance directoring...

Perhaps we should have but later  the young Judomaster would be bound to ask 'who was that lady Daddy?' and what would I say?


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Save The High Street - Get The Hippies In

I think my friend Ian Marchant (polymath and wit and read 'Parallel Lines' and 'The Longest Crawl' for the evidence) said it first and said it best, but I'm saying it again because it bears repeating over and over - if you want to save the High Street you don't need Mary Portas - you need hippies.

Those towns that have been saved from a depressing sameness often follow a recognisable arc that starts with industrial or economic decline which means cheap houses. The hippies buy the houses, do them up using salvaged materials because hippies are often educated and practical.

The, having first saved the houses, they take on the High Street, breathing a wholemeal life into it by setting up wholefood cafes, delis, bakeries, acupuncturists. Reviving trade in the pubs, demanding real beer, decent grub, live music. Bookshops. Setting up touring theatre companies. And I'm not being cynical or facetious. It's these things that do actually save a town. They're not knitting yoghurt those bearded types with the nuclear power no thanks stickers (in welsh) in the windows of their camper vans - they're knitting your depressed small town a safety net.

And then they have kids. And the hippies - being bolshy as well as educated - are on now on the PTA raising cash and Taking An Interest. (often much to the discomfort of the school authorities).Raising standards. And now they're also agitating for better kids services, better libraries, arts events.

And once the schools start improving, well now things become safe for the professionals. Here come the  teachers, the local authority middle managers, the doctors. This next wave usually comes from the public sector (the sector the Tories boss class hate with a rage that's all the more inexplicable given that they rarely use public services if they can avoid it. From public transport to public hospitals they insulate themselves from the people they rule wherever possible). So now you'll find more cafes, more nice shops. Clothes even! Shoes! Comedy clubs! (and probably wife-swapping parties too - though it's hard to find people to talk about that in the playground)

And so now it's finally the kind of place here down-sizing London lawyers, commuting bankers and people with regular columns in the sunday papers might want to move to to. The town is officially saved. Unique, different, desirable. And it's at that moment of course that the hippies - or their children - have to move on. It's got too pricey and, probably, too claustrophobic for them. They're off mate. Off to have a go at rescuing save Rochdale or Crewe or Bedford or A Scruffy Town Near You - if people will let them.

Of course there's only a certain number of hippies. Never enough to go round. Certainly not with the levels of blight that are being visited on us at the moment. And you're probably in a hurry  in which case the only answer is to lobby the government to give councils back the power to set rents for businesses in a bespoke way.

And good luck with that. People power doesn't seem to be quite the force here that it is in other places.

They used to do this though. A blindingly simple way to keep the individual character of communities. A council was free to charge Marks and Spencers one rate per square foot, and the Yorkshire Home-made Eco-Cake Croc and Bike Emporium another. Big business - your Nexts, your Wilkinsons, your Boots and - especially - your Tescos and your Sainsburys, they didn't like this. It meant they were kept out of some nice towns. So their loyal servants in the Thatcher government scrapped this discretion and their almost as loyal servants in the New Labour party never restored it.

So until the time comes when this power is given back to the voters you'll have to rely on Mary Portas. Or wait for your houses to be worth buttons so that the hippies can come and save you.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Vanessa Gebbie on rejection, selection and the unbounded joy of not being an axolotl

In 2007 the writer Vanessa Gebbie won first prize in the Daily Telegraph Write A Novel In A Year competition for her novel in progress.. Now in late 2011 that book is no longer a work in progress. The Coward's Tale (Bloomsbury) has just been published and has already won praise from, well, everywhere. AN Wilson has - just today - named it his novel of the year in the Financial Times.

Vanessa is the daughter of a student nurse and a travelling salesman and was given up for adoption at birth. She spent much of her childhood in Wales and can still sing hymns and swear in Welsh. Her short fiction has won many awards including Fish and Bridport prizes and has been published in the UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada and India, translated into Vietnamese and Italian and broadcast by the BBC. Her teaching and facilitating has led to the publishing of anthologies of work by both the homeless and refugees in her home city of Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK.

And last week I (almost literally) bumped into her in Bedford Square - very close to where the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood began, where the first anasthestic was given and next door to where the first university level college for women started. And - a day or so later - asked her my usual questions to which she responded with the wit, thoughtfulness and narrative brio that characterises her fiction. The Coward's Tale is subtle, many layered and gripping piece of story-telling...

Give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51...)

Welsh. Conceived on a dirty weekend in Swansea. Born. Given away. Happy child, wouldn’t go out to play much, stayed in own head. (More interesting people in there...). Grew. Educated, kind of. Married, had kids, worked. Happy adult. Became writer. Still dislike going out – imagining is much more fun.

What are you doing right now?

Munching my way through a bowl of Rude Health granola with hundreds of blueberries.

And later?

Signing some of my books for Christmas presents over coffee with a friend. Lunch with another friend (I have some! I have some!)... then polishing a story for Radio 3’s The Verb this afternoon.

The Coward's Tale has just come out. How do you feel about the book now it's in the shops? What are your hopes for it?

I feel it is my pension. Therefore you must buy it, and tell all your friends about it. Otherwise I will starve and never write the sequel. Or the prequel. And people may be a bit sad. I would hate to leave sadness as my legacy. So you know what to do.

I have high hopes, today (Monday) because yesterday, in the Financial Times, the rather wonderful and perspicacious A N Wilson, writer and critic, chose The Coward’s Tale as his novel of the year.  I am therefore planning what to wear at the ceremony when I am awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tomorrow, I will be more realistic, and just go about in my sandwich board, exhorting people to storm the bookshops, ransack the booksellers while the beautiful hardback remains on the shelves. It will become a collectors’ item, honest. (Well, people will collect anything, won’t they?!) 

Where did the story come from?

My head.  I said it was interesting in there... It grew over c. 6 years, changed, morphed, was never planned to be anything in particular. The story found itself. I ‘made up’ a small community, using memories of my grandmother’s town – peopled it with an ever-expanding number of characters, until I couldn’t hold them all in the front of my head at the same time, and had to trust that the ones I wasn’t looking at were OK. I was surprised and delighted, or saddened beyond belief with what they got up to when I wasn’t looking. The stories they told.  I just galloped behind with a keyboard.

 How important to you is Wales and being Welsh? 

Well, very. Love the place. The pretty bits slightly less than the not-pretty, but you know - handsome is, as handsome does, as my grandmother used to say.  The most deeply interesting people are not those who have it easy, are they?
I was brought up by a Welsh couple who had to leave Wales during the Depression, to find good jobs. Wherever we were, it was a bit of Wales. Like an embassy. Went to a Welsh boarding school at the foot of Cader Idris – nearly got thrown out at 14, for an early attempt at playwriting/acting/directing...but instead, my Confirmation was delayed as I ‘had the Devil working alongside me...’ Where else but Wales...?!

But seriously – as an adopted adult – having been rejected/selected years back, I feel able to select and reject for myself now.  So. Bring on the Celts. I am Welsh, set a lot of my work there, do 90% of my writing in Ireland, and holiday happily on the very edge of Cornwall  or in Scotland– just got a Hawthornden Fellowship which gives me a whole month to write in a beautiful Scottish castle, too. Oh, and I live in a rather lovely corner of England.  

Where do you see yourself in five years time? ten?

No idea. I am a traveller who has walked uphill for a long time, finally reaching a hut on the top of the mountain. It is draughty here. There is a spring for water, and a supply of animal skins for the wooden planks that serve as a bed. It’s a bit like Scott’s Antarctic hut – there are tins of food, and dried things to chew. But they are all brown, so whether they are meat, fish or fruit is unknowable.
I opened the shutters this morning after I’d rested for a while – and there, looming over us, there is another mountain, the sides even steeper, snow and ice at the top. There is a telescope on the bed – I peered through it – and there, at the top of that mountain, half-covered with snow, is another hut.
Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

I used to work with people trying hard to kick long-term addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Believe me – anyone who fights and wins over addiction is amazing. Hats off.

 Recommend something.

Rude Health Granola!

 Tell me something I don't know.

If you are feeling sad, make your mouth smile. Now make your eyes join in – you know – those muscles round your eyes that crinkle up when you laugh.  Hold it. You now will feel less sad.


Another thing to do if you are feeling sad is to consider the axolotl.  This will bring you joy unbounded, because you are not one. (photo needed...

The Cowards Tale is published by Bloomsbury