Friday, 31 August 2018

Advice for Aspriring Writers Part One: Attitude


 This is the first of a series of articles to inspire other writers. Whether you're a beginner wanting to get started, or a pro who's looking for encouragement, I hope you find something that will help you ...

Embrace your creative nature

A while back, a friend of mine, an aspiring writer, lent me a book about how to pursue creative endeavours. The gist was that while many of us have a creative impulse, it is thwarted by what this author called ‘resistance’, in its various forms – self-doubt, the feeling of needing to attend to other, more practical issues and so on. The irony was, of course, that reading the book was itself a form of ‘resistance’. Another anecdote makes a similar point: A famous writer addresses an audience of wannabes. “Hands up who wants to be a writer.” There’s a substantial show of hands. “Then why aren’t you all at home writing?”

So what, exactly, is stopping you from getting started? There are always many reasons not to write, and you need defences against these negative voices of resistance. They will chatter in your ear as you sit and try to write. They say things like -

‘Who cares? It’s not like anyone’s going to read this stuff anyway.’

‘This isn’t as good as so-and-so. Why am I bothering?’

‘Oh, wait, no, I can’t write that. It might make you look like a bad person!’

 Here’s an argument to silence these voices:

Compelling scientific evidence shows that some people are creative by temperament. If you are trying to write, the chances are that you are one of these people. You will have high levels of what the psychologists call ‘trait openness’ which is strongly linked to creativity. You probably enjoy learning, discussing abstract concepts, are moved by literature, music or other art forms. Sounds like you?

So forget, for now, the question of whether you are a good writer. The point is that you are a writer. You need to accept that first. Then you can get on with becoming a better one.

 Okay, so you accept that you have the type of personality that is inclined to creativity. Now, the worst thing you can do if you are one of these people is not create. If your creative impulse has no outlet, you will become miserable. You have a responsibility for your own mental health and happiness, and this will be enhanced by the expression of what is, apparently, your personality.

Don’t worry if not everyone understands your desire to write. Non-creative people won’t get it, because they don’t share your creative impulse. Fine. But other people will. Find some of these people. Join a writers’ group or an online forum and you will feel less of a freak. But the important thing is to write. Because that’s what writers have to do, whether the world likes it or not.

Once you accept this, you will feel more freedom and entitlement in your creative pursuits. Then, write like mad for few minutes each day, or whenever you can find the time. Don’t worry yet about whether you’re produced anything worthwhile. Give this a week or two, then take stock. Did you enjoy the process? Did it have a basically positive effect on your mood? Do you now have something that looks like it might one day be worth reading? If the answer is yes, then congratulations. You’ve made a start. Now push on forward.

(An aside: I suspect there are many people who are creative types, but for one reason or another have not accepted or even discovered this side of themselves. A songwriter I know who works in prisons tells me that many inmates are thrilled to find in themselves a creative flair they never knew existed. And then there are those would-be creatives who are crippled early by self-doubt or vanity. Rather than asking: ‘Am I creative?’ and proceeding from there, they ask: ‘Am I as good as these famous artists?’ and, too early, decide they aren’t and so quit. And then get eaten up with resentment when they see other people becoming flourishing writers. Don’t be that guy.)

So, you’ve accepted that you are inclined towards creativity, and that you have to create. You’ve gone ahead and written something. Now you need to show it to someone. This brings us onto the next section of Attitude:

How to take criticism.
 

Not all criticism is motivated by a desire to help. Beware the resentful vampires.
 

Most of the serious learning you will have done in your life will have occurred in times of suffering. Criticism is not easy to take, and because writing is such an intimate, personal endeavour, criticism of your work feels like criticism of you. So it’s bound to be painful. But it’s always worth listening to.

I’ve learned a lot from my writers’ group. Of course I love it when I submit a passage of my novel and everyone thinks it’s great. But when I really learn is when they don’t, when they send me away with my head full of awkward questions: Why didn’t they like it? What’s wrong with what I’m trying to achieve? Why didn’t the effects I was aiming for communicate to others? And, eventually: How could this be improved?
 

This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to take what every malevolent idiot says to heart. Be discerning. Some people criticise out of ignorance, spite, or because they’ve been trained in cynical ideology. They’ll trash your work without offering any ideas of how it could be better. (Be sceptical in particular of any criticism whose subtext is, ‘You, the author, have unwittingly revealed yourself to be an evil person’.) Learn to distinguish between the resentful vampires and those whose criticism is nourishing and leads you forward. How do you tell the difference? Well, for one thing, I find that the latter type tends to write more, and better, than the former.
 
 
Your teacher will be on the side of you that wants to become a better writer.
 

Teachers are genuinely worth attending to. They’ll be inclined by personality, and pressurised professionally, to aspire to improve your output. They too will be lovers of literature. But many students take criticism personally. I was about 23, on an undergraduate creative writing course, before I realised that teachers are basically objective in their assessments. If you got a C, it’s because that’s what you produced, not because the teacher doesn’t like as much as they like that more charming person who got an A. Yes, writing is to a large extent subjective, but be very wary of dismissing any advice from a professional teacher. It’s very unlikely they’ll be one of the resentful vampires I mentioned earlier. If their written comments don’t make much sense to you, pester them for a conversation about your work. Yes, they’re busy, but they’ll appreciate your willingness to learn from feedback, and the conversation is likely to be more enlightening than their scrawled notes at the end of your story. Teachers are also useful guides to your reading. They might be able to point you towards writers in your genre that will stretch and inspire you further.

So to summarise: Accept that you have a creative nature, and that this needs expression. Write something. Then learn from criticism.

In the next instalments I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of style, and how to tackle tricky subjects such as politics and sex …

Wednesday, 25 July 2018


9/11 was an inside job? No. We need to stand up to these dangerous conspiracy theories.

My article on conspiracy theories is published on the Times Educational Supplement website, complete with comments from the very conspiracy theorist types I was attacking ...

https://www.tes.com/news/bush-was-behind-911-teachers-must-not-be-afraid-confront-dangerous-myths



Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Remain - a new short story





When I thought of dumping my boyfriend I pictured:

Having more time to devote to the Party, going on dates, finding a man who didn’t send flirty emails to a colleague called Suzy. Someone who at least attempted DIY and had more … ambition. Someone sexy, powerful, well off. Does this make me a hypocrite? Probably. Actually, yes.


Election campaigns always do something weird to me. It’s easy to forget that the feelings they inspire don’t last forever. I was away a lot. I was running off adrenaline, bonding with my fellow soldiers in a war we were bound to win. And Martin, with his complaints about his boss, his Saturday football matches and Sunday lunches with his mum, seemed like a phase I’d outgrown. And then, with three weeks to go to election day, when I discovered he'd been emailing Suzy again ... I made more of a fuss about it than was necessary, I suppose. When he said that nothing had Happened, I believed him. He has an almost neurotic reluctance to lie (one reason he'd never last in politics). But still I had a point, didn't I, that he must have been thinking about something Happening? Then he broke down and actually, like, cried and did that speech about how lonely he'd been while I was away.
A more decent person might have melted at that. But I'd gone too far in picturing life without him, and I got sort of … drunk on power, I guess. Before I knew it I was saying the terrible, exhilarating words I'd half-planned on saying for weeks. I didn’t expect him to give up so quickly. One minute we were sitting at the table, unable to face that chicken casserole he'd made, having that tearful conversation; the next he was packing.

Why should I waste a moment longer,” he said, chucking stuff into a suitcase I'd not seen since our holiday in Morocco two years ago, “with someone who doesn't love me?”

Of course I love you. It's just that ...”

He gave me a moment to finish and, when I didn't, pushed past me to the door.

It was very quiet after he left. The sort of silence that lurks, gathering force in the corners of the room. So, yes I went and found the Emergency Cigarettes. I sat back at the table, using the casserole dish as an ashtray, planning my political career and telling myself I'd just done a brutal but necessary thing.




Over the coming days the silence was easily filled. There was no time for a long, dark night of the soul. As well as running the regional press office, I was effectively joint-managing the local campaign. I was on my phone all night until I fell into exhausted sleep, then the alarm would go off and I'd get that surge of adrenaline that would propel me out of bed and back onto the campaign trail. To win, you have to see yourself winning. You have to visualise. And boy, was I visualising. Geoffrey, whose seat we were defending, was dropping hints about how there might be a better job for me after the election. A London job. A Westminster job. I pictured … I’m embarrassed to say exactly what I pictured. But I'm sure you can imagine the sort of thing. MP. Then junior minister, then a cabinet post. Home Secretary, maybe, and who knows? One day, even … Look, I know, alright?



I didn’t picture:

Losing the election, obviously.



I didn’t picture the pay cut and counting the coppers and having to drop the gym membership and the subscription to the New Statesman. I didn't picture the overnight massacre of jobs, coming into the office and finding there was just me, for hours on end, with not all that much to do. Then home to the empty flat where I’d fuck about on Twitter, trying not to smoke.

Summer faded; the bed grew cold. But getting to sleep wasn't the half of it. Staying asleep was the challenge. I began to have a regular nightmare, which I came to think of as The Noise. I’m confronted by a disapproving auntie type in a blue dress (a Tory auntie, naturally), frowning at her watch, turkey wattle wobbling as she shakes head in disapproval tinged with schadenfreude. Then she looks at me. I try to shout at her but she puts a choking hand around my throat. Then she opens her mouth, and instead of words out of her mouth comes this hideous clicking sound: tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.



I felt sorry for myself. I felt sorry for all of us. I had a bit of a cry when I was helping Geoffrey out of the office with his cardboard boxes. And I felt really sorry for Ed. You could tell he was as shocked as anyone. Before he left for Ibiza, I found myself in Doncaster, on my way back from a profoundly depressing strategy meeting. I had an hour to kill, changing trains, and I stopped to use the loo in this little cafĂ©. They were putting up the chairs, sweeping the floor, and at a table in the corner there was Ed, miserably munching a panini. There were two blokes with him, fiddling with their phones. No one was talking. I could have introduced myself of course, commiserated. I’ve met him a few times and he’s always remembered me and been lovely. But I didn't think he’d appreciate the interruption. Ed was struggling with the Mozzarella in his sandwich – you know how you can get strings of the stuff that just go on and on? And I looked at him - this man who we thought was going to be Prime Minister, whose legacy would be a more compassionate capitalism - making these clumsy little loops with his fork while his aides looked down at their phones and I thought: Mate, if it wasn’t for Justine, you’d be fucked.




But you fight on. My dad taught me that. He spent decades pounding the streets, taking shit on the doorstep. Three years before his first heart attack he got one lousy term in Morley South before losing to the fucking BNP. Still he kept on. You have to believe or you’re nothing. It wasn't enough for me to send out the odd press release. I had to get back to the grass roots, hear the arguments, even allow myself to be persuaded of the virtues of this crusty old Trot called Jeremy Corbyn. Anything to drown out The Noise.



The far left had been around forever, of course. But for those of us who came of age during the Blair years they never seemed like a serious threat. They were dinosaurs. Then suddenly we were up to our arses in dinosaurs – in freshly hatched velociraptors snapping their bright young teeth and screeching Disaffected Blairite! and Red Tory!



The meeting billed as Beyond Defeat: What Next for Labour? It was in a community centre opposite that awful high-rise university hall of residence, and was hosted by Susan Leatherman. Remember her, Martin? She came to my thirtieth, which admittedly is a while ago now. You couldn't ask for a more dedicated constituency MP. She never got from Tony the attention she felt was her due but she didn’t let that bias her against him. She’s strong, principled. I spoke to her on the phone after election day and she was admirably tough about it all, having only just held her seat. We’d be back, she said. You had to take the long view. Europe would do for Cameron’s government like it had for all the others. Time, she soothed, was on our side.


I arrived early just as she was testing the mic. She stepped off the stage, gave me a hug and held me by the arms.

Now. Are you alright, Laura?”

For a moment I thought she must have heard about Martin leaving. But then I realised she meant, did I still have a job?

Yes. They've kept me on at the press office.”

She smiled. “Everyone values the work you do. That's what I've been hearing.”

No idea, looking back, how true that was. But you can imagine how much I wanted to believe her.

I sat near the front. The room began to fill. There were lots of them and most of them were young, which I took to be a good sign. But then Sue started speaking and I realised something was wrong. She was trying to buck us up with talk of our achievements. The minimum wage, protection of worker’s rights, action on child poverty. Then someone said, “Illegal war!”

Sue's a pro, and she barely paused. But a moment later there was hissing, as if the pantomime villain had walked on stage in a green fog of dry ice.

Blairite!” someone said, smothered in a cough. Then there was some pretend sneezing and Sue stopped talking and glared, which made them laugh. Suddenly I was back at school, feeling sorry for the supply teacher.

Not to mention,” said Sue, leaning into the microphone, “Our proud history of confronting racism. Including anti-Semitism.”

There were sniggers and someone said, “I’ve just got a cold! A – Jew!” and that did it. I was on my feet, turning round.

Pack it in!”

The laughter died away.

You should be ashamed of yourselves!”

Martin always said I’m scary when I’m angry. Well, it has its uses. It went quiet. I was staring at row upon row of handsomely bearded hipsters; young women, faces tight with moral conviction; a clutch of Asian men and their implacably veiled wives. The girl behind me, insolently chewing gum, was pointing a phone at me, filming it all. The familiar faces in the crowd looked old, frightened, outnumbered.

I sat down. Sue gave me a discreet nod, continued speaking. For a while there was no more heckling, and I began to feel proud of myself. But then Sue turned a page in her speech and I knew she was up to a passage praising Tony, and she was about to change her mind, but then thought, no, that’s giving in to them, so went ahead with it anyway. But she rushed it, trying to get it over with as the hissing started up again, along with more of that ‘a-Jew’ shit.


Then she was off the stage and it was the next speaker’s turn, a white Muslim woman called Safa Haque, who I recognised as a former grammar school teacher called Kath Blunt. She did a Tory-bashing posh-boy-scum routine. She tore into Trident, using the old penis-extension analogy. She made a joke, if you could call it that, about Cameron and the pig’s head. She raised the roof with a line about how the Tories’ secret plan was to shaft the NHS to the point of having to privatise it. She attacked the 'lies' of the 'Zionist lobby' and the 'mainstream media'. Oh, they fucking loved her, Martin. You’d have puked.

Afterwards there was a mass exodus to the pub across the street. I went behind the stage, looking for Sue. But she must have left already and who could blame her?


I stepped outside for an Emergency Cigarette. Smoking outside already was a handsome bloke with a shaved head and kind eyes.

Good night?”

I’ve had better.”

He smiled.

How was yours?”

Oh, I’m just the caretaker, love. It’s all the same to me. But I was watching. I’m Gareth.”

I shook his proffered hand, felt its rough palm. “You were pretty feisty in there,” he said.

I bristled: Would he call a man 'feisty'? But he meant it as a compliment. “Thanks. It wasn't enough, though, was it?”

He shrugged. “You tried.” He was gorgeous, I noticed. Sort of tough but soulful-looking with long-lashed eyes. Too young for me though.

Night, Gareth.”

Don’t go yet.”

I hesitated. Was he going to invite me out? I looked into his eyes and before I could stop myself imagined them gazing into mine across a pillow.

Why not?” I said, raising an eyebrow, quite the coquette.

He looked down, grinding out his cigarette with his toe. “Because you’ve got chewing gum in your hair.”

I wanted to get straight off then, but he wouldn’t let me. He took me into the dressing-room, which had a mirror, and from a tool kit produced a pair of scissors. He stood behind me, put those hands on my shoulders. We locked eyes in the mirror and it was all I could do not to press my arse into him. God, I’d been so fucking lonely.

Then he shook his head as if to clear it, began making little cuts with the scissors. “So where's your husband tonight?”

I sighed. “You know, I'd have preferred 'boyfriend'.”

Ah. You'd have felt younger.”

No husband,” I said. “No boyfriend either.”

He caught my eye and this time I had to look away.

You realise it’s over, don’t you?” he said.

What?”

The Labour Party.” He shifted my hair, made a more decisive cut. “The centre-left in general.”

Bollocks,” I said.

Maybe.” He plucked out the gob of gum, turned it over in his palm, tossed it into the bin. He smiled at me in the mirror. “Fancy a pint?” he said.



We walked up the road, avoiding the velociraptors at the big, studenty place nearby, until we found a small, modern bar with candles on the table. We carried our pints to a cosy booth.

It turned out that he only volunteered at the community centre. Job-wise, he was a plumber. He watched me as he revealed this, checking my reaction, which was … Ooooh, mixed. You know: Look at good little lefty me, having a beer with a genuine, honest-to-God member of the working class. Also a faint pang of intellectual snobbery and squeamishness: All that shitty water! I'm not proud of either reaction, by the way.

I asked him about being a plumber and he told me about it. But there was a bit of irony in his delivery now. He intensified his Yorkshire accent on words like 'monkey-wrench' and 'effluence', as if satirising the class difference between us.

Oh,” I said at one point, distracted by the proximity of his large, dark eyes and manfully gesturing hands. “That's interesting.”

He laughed. “Is it bollocks, Laura. But it pays the bills.”

I liked the sound of my name on his tongue. I asked if it was true that indigenous plumbers were being forced out of work by a flood of immigrants.

Not round here. But that didn't stop half the people I know voting UKIP. But come on, if Polish plumbers are getting hired, it's because they're good. The answer is to make sure you're better. That's capitalism.”

You didn't vote UKIP, then.”

Don't tell the lads. It's bad enough that I make them listen to Radio Four when we're on the job. I prefer the Today programme to Chris Evans? I must be a poof.”

My head was spinning with challenged prejudices and sexual fantasies. I managed to get out, “So how did you vote?”

Tory, mate.”

And the curious thing was, I did not feel an almost physical repulsion, did not enjoy the hot spurt of righteous anger at being confronted with a morally inferior specimen. I did, however, feel a dark-chocolatey thrill of transgression.

Gareth was chuckling. “Oh dear. Your face, Laura. You fucking hate me now, don't you?” He didn't seem particularly bothered about this.

I don't actually. But don't tell my mates. So. Why Tory?”

I wanted to vote for Miliband. But, come on, really? Sorry, he's probably a friend of yours and I'm sure he means well, but … In times like this you need a government that can take the harsh decisions to get you through a rough patch. It's not a time for pissing about, virtue-signalling. I think Cameron's made a serious mistake though.”

Oh? And what's that?”

The referendum. He'll lose.”

Bollocks,” I said. “You need to get out more.”

He shrugged. I liked the way he was happy to disagree. I don't get that much from people. “Maybe.” He drained his pint. “One for the road?”

When he returned with the next round he was in a playful mood. He began challenging me to name the shadow cabinet.

You're competitive, aren't you?”

You ain't seen nothing yet,” he said, producing a pen and paper.


He turned the whole thing into a game, kept score, though the rules were vague. Before I knew it we were arm-wrestling, collapsing into giggles.

We held hands in the back of the cab and by the time it pulled up outside his flat we were kissing.

He wanted to carry me up the stairs.

“Show-off!”

“Come on.” He held out his arms for me to fall into.

“I'm too feminist for that nonsense.”

“Alright, compromise. Piggy back.”

I jumped onto his back and he made a pantomime of being surprised at how heavy I was, so I could spitefully kick him in the thighs with my high heels. He took me up two flights of stairs and we collapsed, laughing onto his bed. The first time he was all panting, thrusting and flexing muscles. I thought: typical twenty-something man raised on internet porn. But the second time he was gentle and patient, rocking me slowly, like he had all the time in the world, into orgasm. Did he enjoy this variety? Or was it more that he was proving a point, that he had more than one tool in his kit, so to speak? I stopped wondering about this and fell asleep with his rough-palmed hand stroking my hair.


So yes, Martin. It Happened. He applied his spanner to my nuts and bolts. He unblocked my clogged-up pipes. He stuck his plunger deep into my u-bend. Seriously though. It reminded me what I'd been missing. We used to have that. Where did it go? Was it something we lost when we moved in together? Gradually it got pushed out by me working late, by Newsnight, box sets. Because when you shack up, there's always tomorrow night, isn't there? Until suddenly there isn't.



I woke up late, in a panic. On the way out of his flat I stubbed my toe on his tool box. The ache in my foot that day seemed of a piece with the other bits of me that were sore, sweetly painful reminders of what a great time I'd had.



The morning was slow, and I had a lot of time to make myself cups of tea and remember my night with the gorgeous plumber. But then the calls started, first from the local papers, then the nationals, about what exactly had happened at last night's meeting. I was deliberately vague with some haughty cow from the Telegraph.

“Come on, Laura,” she said. “You can do better than this. I'm reliably informed that you were there. So: Were there or were there not anti-Semitic comments made during Susan Leatherman's speech?”

I told her I'd have to call her back.

“Twenty minutes,” she said and hung up.

Fuming, I tried to raise Susan Leatherman, couldn't get through, ended up having to cobble together some vague bullshit referring to 'disruption' and 'reports of anti-Semitic comments'. I was not going to describe for the Tory-graph the exact nature of the racist sneezing. I finished off my statement with something about how Labour did not tolerate anti-Semitism. When it came back from central office, they'd added “... or other forms of racism,” which to me looked pretty bloody shifty, but there was no time to argue, so I had to send it as it was, and felt grubby and compromised for the rest of the day.


Who leaked the anti-Semitic stuff to the press? Not the velociraptors, surely? Someone on my side, trying to discredit them? What was my side exactly? Oh, shit, I could see where this was going.



I was tempted to call Gareth, but even I know that's not the done thing now. So I waited two days before sending him a message. I wanted to be witty, so looked up the members of the cabinet from a few years ago, then texted him. 'Who's Margaret Becket? You're not allowed to look her up, obvs.

A couple of hours later I started to regret this. Maybe that tone belonged to our pre-shag selves, and now I was failing to appreciate the transforming nature of the sex we’d had. So I tried again.

I miss you. Can we meet next weekend?


Then I spent a few days anxiously checking my phone for messages, imagining hearing it ring, even grabbing it out of my bag only to find that it was mute.

I was watching Question Time, drinking cheap Merlot and smoking my way through a pack of Emergency Cigarettes when his text arrived.


“That was a nice night but I'm afraid I'm a bit busy also loved up with a new bird sorry. PS: Margaret Beckett (two t’s) is Labour. Foreign secretary and then housing minister. Led the No to AV campaign. Survived the expenses scandal. Now something on a select committee? Take care.”


“Fucking Tories,” I said aloud.

I thought that was quite a cool reaction. But there was no-one there to hear it.



There were other blokes, but there's not much of the winter of 2015 to '16 that I care to remember. Only when the referendum campaign kicked in did the gloom begin to lift. Here was another battle to be fought, and one we were pretty much guaranteed to win.


But oh my God.



They sent me to Doncaster, where again and again I found myself arguing on the doorsteps of Brexiteers. Would Britain be better off leaving the EU? They didn't seem to be hearing that question at all. For many of them, it was, Is your life a bit shit? And since the answer was yes, they were voting leave. It was crazy, of course. But then who was I to talk? I can't pretend to be totally baffled by the appeal of a self-inflicted wound in the name of independence. Take back control! Is that what I'd thought I was doing?



You know when people talk about 'shouting at the TV'? It's usually done as a bit of a laugh. But when I found myself shouting at the TV late on June 23, it wasn't funny at all. There were people in that room more exhausted than I was, who had known Jo Cox much better than I did, and when I think of them I still burn with shame.


We were watching Nigel Farage on the big TV mounted on the wall. He was celebrating the victory for 'real', 'ordinary', and 'decent' people.

“And we will have done it without having to fight,” he was saying, his head snapping back and forth, “Without a single bullet being fired -”

“A bullet was fired, you fucking idiot!”

I can't remember what else I shouted. It was Susan Leatherman who bundled me out. She gave me a hug and brought me some sugary tea. Without explicitly saying so she made it clear that I wasn't allowed back in until I'd got my shit together.



Nine o'clock, June 24. I was removing the Remain banner from outside the house when Martin walked up the drive. He wore a nice fitting suit with his tie askew. Without saying anything he hugged me. A chaste hug, but still it felt good. He looked at me and laughed, but sympathetically.

“Glass of wine?”

“Why? So you can hear all about my failures?”

“No. Just thought you might fancy a chat.”

Now that he looked hurt, I realised I didn't really want to hurt him. He turned and began walking back to his car.

“Wait, Martin.”

He turned round.

“Stay.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Stay.” I held up the poster: Remain.


In the pub he explained that he lived only a few streets away. He’d moved out of his mum’s and was renting a ‘shitty flat above a shop’.

But he looked good. His hair was longer in a way that disguised the recession at his temples, and from the way his bicep flexed as he poured the wine I could tell he’d not ditched the gym habit.

“So how are you?”

“How are you?” he said. His tone implied that I was the one we should be worried about. We talked about the election, about Corbyn, about the referendum result, about Hillary and Trump, but before I knew it I was spilling my guts about Gareth the plumber.

“He sounds alright. Still seeing him?”

“Nah. It was just a bit of fun.”

He looked at me. “Really?”

He always understood me. Even when I was bullshitting him.

But then he was standing up, answering his phone. “Hi, Suzy,” he said, stepping away from the table.


I went out for an Emergency Cigarette. When I returned he was back at the table. And if he smelt the tobacco on me he didn't mention it.

“So,” I said. “Suzy. How long's that been going on for?”

“It hasn’t.”

“Bollocks.”

“Last month I was made regional manager. I've been transferred to the Leeds office. We went for a meal last week and … I don't know. It wasn't the same.”

“Why not? She was gagging for it, Martin. And you were -”

“Well - I think it was all based on being in the same office together, being at the same level. But now she takes liberties because we used to be mates and she thinks she can get away with it, and I'm in this awkward position where I have to phone her up and give her a bollocking. So I told her just now that I couldn't see her tonight because I was with you. She didn’t like that.”

“So you haven’t even shagged her?”

“Nope. Turned out I didn’t want to.”

I topped up my glass and drank, surprised at how relieved I felt.

“So. Regional manager, eh? Bit of a pay rise?”

He watched me carefully as he revealed the figure.

“Wow.” I felt him watching me, in spite of myself, making calculations. “Congratulations.”

“Since you kicked me out I realised that weekends are just empty when you're single unless you actively fill them. And all my mates are in couples now. So I started going into the office on Saturdays and putting together a sort of overview of the whole company. I presented it to my boss along with some suggestions and, well, I think he was impressed. So when a vacancy came up, I thought I might as well go for it. I should be able to rent somewhere better before long.”

“Of course.”

“I don't think I'll get my deposit back. I'd been thinking about what you said about DIY. So I tried putting up a towel rail on the bathroom door. Now it looks like someone's been at it with a machine gun.”

“Maybe DIY is not for you.”

“Maybe.” His smile faded. “Does it make a difference to how you feel about me?”

“The towel rail?”

“The money.”

He was trying to look casual but I noticed his hand was tight on his wine glass and the muscle in his jaw was clenching.

“Would you think less of me if it did?”

“Not sure I could think less of you, to be honest, Laura.”

“Oh, thanks!”

“I just mean that I think I know you now. I know the real Laura.” He let out a helpless chuckle that crinkled the corners of his eyes. “And still I miss her.”

“It's not just the money. It's like you were barely even trying. When I was working so hard.”

“Well, maybe I've learnt something. So. How's the single life?”

“Oh, it's great. It's humbling. I've been having nightmares.” I told him about The Noise. “It's such a clichĂ©.”

“There's nothing wrong with being worried about running out of time. Fertility drops sharply in women after -”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks, Martin.”

“Look, I worry about it too.”

“It's not the same for men.”

“No. But ...” He laid a palm on the side of my face. “It's not that different either.”


Touching my face seemed to do something to him and he sat back shakily. “Sorry.” He drank the rest of his wine, tried to smile. “I know you'll never give up the fight. I love that about you. But you are allowed to take a break for – for other things. Look at it this way, Laura. Do you really want to be alone that morning in November when you wake up and Donald Trump is the next president?”

“God, don't even joke about it.”

I reached for his hand.

The waiter came over. Martin nodded to the empty bottle. “Shall we get another?”

“Let’s take one home.”

“Home? Where's that?”



Later I was lying on the bed while he straddled my hips and looked down on me. The setting sun cast a gleam of warm light over his body, but his face was in shadow. Then he leaned down and kissed me. There was aggression in the kiss and for a moment I almost felt scared. What if he wanted revenge?

He straightened, breathing hard. “Are you using anything?”

“No, but there are some jonnies in the drawer.”

He put his hands on either side of my face and said softly, “Let’s not bother with contraception.”

“What? Are you kidding? Why?”

“Oh, Laura ...” His hands seemed to tremble. He bent over me and kissed me again, more gently this time. He smoothed my hair against my cheek. His lips moved to my ear. “Tick tick tick,” he said.

Monday, 26 December 2016

A new poem: Tights


Tights




Returning from a family holiday, I found a pair of tights

Tangled around the lampshade in my room.

Downstairs my parents were bollocking my brother

For the fun he'd sneaked behind our backs.

While he was buffeted by accusations – the cigarette-burned carpet,

The cider-saturated sofa, the incompetently mended chair -

I lay on the bed, breathed in the sheets

And dreamed of how they got up there.

In what state of frantic fever were they flung to alight upon their lofty, mocking perch?

I wallowed in the exquisite envy of the uninitiated.

And the dreams of bliss to come.



Tights around a lampshade: Even then, a promise of pain

As well as ecstasy in the years that stretched ahead.

When many promises would end up broken.

But that one, never.


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Latest story: Something by which to Remember Me


Something by which to Remember Me









“You realise this is a test?”

I pushed my Fender Twin further into the van, closed the doors and turned to face her. She stood in the driveway in jeans and bare feet, the tough-girl smile not quite masking the fear in her eyes.

“Then let’s pass it,” I said.


We embraced and kissed in the way we still did then. Her tears ran into our mouths and we kept on kissing until my phone bleeped – another hurry-up message from our manager, Bob.

“Go on. Give em hell.” She swiped at the tears, annoyed with herself. “Break a leg. Whatever.”

I looked over my shoulder as I backed out of the driveway – it was barely wide enough for the van - yes, I should have trimmed that hedge - and by the time I straightened up and faced the house again, Amanda had disappeared inside it, invisible behind the small-ish front window that reflected the mid-summer sun.


The house, our first, we’d bought with the help of a loan from Amanda’s dad. They don’t give good mortgage deals to musicians, apparently. Not even those featured in the Best Newcomer category of the NME awards. Would we ever pay her dad back? Would I ever earn enough for us to make equal mortgage payments? How did Amanda feel about this fundamental inequality? No, I knew how she felt.


But an hour later I was on the way to London, to first show of our first UK tour, with two close buddies who knew what it meant to be the NME's Best Newcomer. Bob cranked up our single, The Sweetest Pain, gave an un-ironic whoop, opened the windows to let in the diesel fumes and fuck me if it didn’t feel like rock n roll.




The NME thing didn’t impress our mortgage adviser – my generation, prematurely plump and middle-aged in her bank-issue skirt and blouse plus specs.

She politely read the article, shook her head and said, “It's still 'musician', so ...”

“So the computer says no.”

“I'm afraid it does.”

There was an awkward moment while Amanda gave me an apologetic cringe. Taking the NME into the bank had been her idea. I folded the magazine and stuffed it into my bag. Amanda slipped outside to call her dad. The mortgage adviser gazed at her screen, clicking her mouse, and said. “Oh, well. When you're rich and famous I'll be able to say ...”

As if I was in a band to be rich and famous. As if I'd fail if it didn't make me rich and famous. Which I guess I probably would. Because it probably wouldn’t. Have you ever said that 'rich and famous' thing to someone in a band? If you haven't, try not to start. Even if you end up a mortgage adviser.



Our NME award did impress some girls – girls who read the NME, a species now extinct, no doubt, but in those days very much warmly alive. They began hanging around after shows, while Bob – newly married, fifty, fatherly in his faded denim and Guns N Roses T-shirt, let us stand around flirting while he packed the bulk of the gear. The girls asked what we were doing now, and usually we were driving on for the next tour date. But sometimes we were staying in a nearby hotel and they wanted to come with us: Test time. It helped that Jake had a girlfriend as well. It helped that our tight budget meant that most nights Jake and I had to share a twin room, and that wouldn’t work. (“What do you think we are,” we liked to say to each other, “Fucking footballers?”) It helped that most of our fans were teenagers – and I don't have a thing for teenagers. It helped that I loved Amanda.



“But where are all the lads?” I asked as we drove north through the night.

“What do you want lads for?” Jake opened the window, letting in a spattering of rain, and blew smoke out of it. We were drinking the last of the beers from our rider while our kit shifted and clanked in the back. Bob, driving without music so we could rest our ears after the show, hummed our tunes and chewed Nicorette.

“Male fans tend to buy more music,” I said. “Girl fans are fickle.”

“And where's your evidence for that?”

“Just an instinct.” Maybe I was thinking of Amanda, the scratched, boxless Best Of CDs languishing in her glove compartment. (I once told her that Alan Partridge gag. You know the one? Asked his opinion on the best Beatles album, Alan solemnly intones: “I think it would have to be … The Best of the Beatles.” Amanda laughed, but did she get it?)

“Maybe there are more girl fans because we're so damn gorgeous,” Jake said.

Meaning they fancied him. A fact about Jake: He was very good-looking in those days. And, credit due, he was a great performer. When you picture us on stage, picture him at the front, pushing us out there at the crowd, while I'm the jerk-off further back – strumming the Telecaster, keeping all the electronic shit going with five different pedals. I'd written most of our songs, a fact on which of course Jake preferred not to dwell. Our biggest hit, a mushy ballad, The Sweetest Pain, (Did I mention it?) was all mine. It's the sort of song girls like, which probably explained their predominance in our fan base. I didn't remind Jake of this. It was my job to be the mature one.

“They fancy you,” I said. You see? Gracious.

“That one in the specs seemed more keen on you, mate.”

“She was lovely, actually.”

“Mmm. Shame we had to leave. Shame you can't do anything anyway since you're shacked up with Amanda.”

“It's not a shame,” I said, reaching for my phone so I could send her the reassuring post-show text.




I met Amanda in the Starbucks in Borders in our final year at university. I collected my espresso and was looking for a free table when I saw this blonde girl with deep brown eyes and a pleasantly chunky body. I like women who are cool with being alone in public. It bodes well for their self confidence. I hovered until she caught my eye.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Pleasure,” she said, and her lips parted, revealing endearingly crooked teeth. Pleasure …

We were both Lit students and we bonded over books. Her tastes bordered uncomfortably on the stuff my mum read for her book group. No doubt mine – Roth, Updike, the big Americans – seemed a bit macho. But there was enough crossover for us to find common ground. And how much do you really want in common anyway? We also bonded over the stuff we both didn't like. When we wandered into the shop, Amanda pointed at To Kill a Mockingbird and said, “What an over-rated pile of tosh that is,” I felt emboldened to jerk a derisive thumb at a film poster of Breakfast at Tiffany's. “That's worse.”

“Oh, don't get me started ...”

Over our second coffee, I mentioned the band.

“No, I haven’t heard of you,” she said, reaching for her phone, checking her texts. “But then I’m hopelessly uncool when it comes to music.”

She sounded proud of herself.

So we barely talked about music over that first summer. Most of it was spent in the attic bedroom of the house she shared. Then, when the girl who lived in the room next door began to get a bit catty about the noise we were making, we switched to my flat for a while. I lived alone at the time. The night of her first visit, I made an effort - the session with the bleach and the toilet brush; the cooking of a meal from my sister’s recipe book, which involved a measuring jug and an aubergine. Then Amanda arrived. She looked great in a snug pair of jeans and a top that stopped above her pierced navel. (The early Noughties was the age of the exposed midriff. Remember that?) She saw the rows of vinyl, the vintage posters, my KORG home studio, the Fender and the Martin.

“Shit, you do play in a band, don't you?”

I put on our demo, tried not to mind when, during the second song she got up and began browsing the books on my shelf, actually taking some of them down and reading bits just when it got to the middle-eight that I was so proud of. I tried not to mind because I felt entirely relaxed in her company. Easy, was the word that came to mind. You know that Bryan Adams line about it being so damn easy making love to you? What I love is that the line was probably very easy to write. And it can happen that way. The juices flow. The gold streams out of your pen and you’re fucking Amanda like it’s an addiction and you can’t remember how you ever got through a day without her. You feel a tenderness you didn’t know you were capable of. And after a run of difficult girls I was happy to savour an easy one. And she said she didn't want kids, which at the very least kicked that whole issue into the long grass, which was where it belonged as far as I was concerned. So what if she wasn't much of a music lover? Insight One: Not giving a shit about music does not necessarily make you a bad person. Insight Two: Giving a shit does not make you a good one. The Nazis and Wagner, remember.

She drove us out for a weekend in the Chilterns, and I was good about not sneering at her Now That's What I Call Music CDs. I took my own compilations. I imposed a system of taking turns of three tracks each. She half-listened to my explanations of the songs – Bruce, Petty, Cohen, the Beatles, the Stones – and the stories behind them. Then, on the Sunday, driving back, when it was her turn, she said, “I think I'll just have silence for a bit.”

“Silence. Okay.”

After a moment she said, “Not like, actual silence. Talk to me.”

And we talked a lot, in a state of fearless liberation. About ourselves, our histories, our exes. But she was also thrillingly knowledgeable. She'd explain stuff – the way the chalk in the Chilterns was formed, how hedge funds worked, the significance of the shadow-cabinet reshuffle, you name it. I just gave up trying to talk about music. But that did mean, for instance, that a song would come on the radio, and it would occur to me to say something about it, and I'd stop myself. That can be a habit that spreads, I find, until you over-think and you lose a certain spontaneity. You're still playing together, but you're not, like, shredding.




It became less easy when we bought the house. I worried that the mortgage would … stifle my creativity. Steal my muse. Okay, laugh. The commitment brought with it the spectre of what my mum would have called a 'real job'. Amanda did teacher training and landed what she told me was a fairly cushy number with a sixth form college. Over the long holidays she did a lot of tutoring. So we managed, with the help of her dad who was – and this helped too – something of a bedroom guitarist. (Cherry-red Strat, Straights, Rea).

Amanda would probably have said that I didn't take enough of an interest in decorating the place. As if I should feel excited about spending an afternoon sanding a door when I should have been in the rehearsal studio with Jake. But no-one could say I wasn’t putting the hours in.

Sex tailed off a bit, big surprise. And it was happening more often that I'd be recognised by some babe when we went out together. So I can see why she thought the first tour was a test. But I was confident of passing it, because I loved her, didn't do drugs or stupid amounts of drinking, which is more than could be said for Jake.


It didn't take him long to fail the test. After the Newcastle gig I came back from loading my amp into the van to find Jake snorting a line off the table in what passed for our dressing room. With him was a distressingly attractive gothy-looking girl. You know the type: pale, plump curves straining against leather and metal, exciting those parts of you that you're not especially proud of.

“I’m going back to Jenna’s,” he declared.

“You’re bloody not!” Bob had come in behind me and looked furious. It will have been the coke as much as anything. Bob had seen his fair share of casualties and wasn’t about to preside over another. “We’ve to be up at seven tomorrow. I’m not taking the risk.”

But Jake had coke fizzing in his head and was starting to feel invincible. “I’m taking the risk, mate. I’m going back to Jenna’s. It’s a hall of residence in town. I can meet you in –”

“Bring her with us,” I said quickly. “I’ll sleep in Bob’s room.”

And so I spent a night on the floor, listening to Bob snoring and farting, trying not to hear the orgasmic moaning and rattling bed frame through the thin wall, telling myself I’d done a good thing.

In the morning I was woken by the alarm, made instant coffee – the UHT milk, the too-small kettle with its too-short flex – and knocked on Jake's door. Jenna opened it. She was wearing a hotel bath robe, which she let fall open as she reached out and took both mugs. Before turning away, she caught me giving her the once-over and we locked eyes. She stuck out her tongue – in and out, swift as a snake - but it was enough for me to remember her tongue, which was long and plump, and on which a silver stud insolently glittered.



I tolerated Jake moaning about his hangover and bragging about the girl until he sobered up and went sullen. But I drew the line at letting him stretch out across the seats in the van. I did that while he morosely chewed gum as we crossed the border under a grey sky.



Something changed at the Glasgow show. I’d worried that Jake would be under-par after his sex-and-drugs session, but he really pulled it out that night. There were girls and boys in the front rows shouting the songs back at us. He reached out, gripped hands and was pulled into the crowd. I watched him consumed as if by a hungry sea and then spat out, shirtless, clambering back on stage. In the spotlight, I could see that female fingernails had scored tracks across his back. You’d be impressed by how well I concealed my jealousy, how maturely I kept this in perspective. It helped that it turned out the show got a five-star review in Melody Maker. On the way to Aberdeen, we got the news that the single had reached number nine. Officially Top Ten! In celebration we upgraded that night so I had a room of my own. I was running a bath when Bob knocked on the door with a champagne miniature and the news that we’d been offered a slot on Later with Jools Holland.



At last Amanda was impressed. Her dad had seen the Melody Maker piece and called her. When I pulled up in the van she came out of the house to greet me. There was an unmistakable shine of pride in her eyes.

“You do play in a band, don’t you -?”

We kissed in a way that should have told her everything she needed to know. But still she checked: “So did you pass the test?”

“Of course I did.”

We were in the bedroom and she was sitting across me, pulling her top over her head when I remembered to ask, “Did you pass?”

What was I hoping for? A coquettish wouldn't-you-like-to-know? smile followed by a discreet affirmative? I didn't quite get that. Amanda laughed, putting something bitterly self-deprecating and not very sexy into it. She balled up her top and chucked it across the room where it bounced off the wash basket and onto the floor. “Yes I did,” she said. “Not that it was much of a test.”



***



After the respectable performance of our first album the label decided it was time to attempt a US tour. Bob didn't put it any more optimistically than that. We weren't going to 'conquer' or 'crack' America. (Remember Suede? Their singer, Brett Anderson used to make enjoyably over-the-top statements in interviews. Asked if he thought Suede could make it in the states, he said America would be 'brought to heel'. Sometimes I thought I lacked the chutzpah to be a proper rock star). But there were signs that America might warm to us. The new folk scene was going by then. Jake had been less resistant than usual to my attempts to take us in a more acousticy direction. He'd have died of shame if he'd known there was anything remotely country going on, but that's where I was taking us. Bob booked us four weeks down the Eastern seaboard, then the delta blues belt. Jake was annoyingly divided about this. Of course he was wildly excited about the possibilities of a successful American tour. But Bush had just won his second term, which gave Jake all the more confidence in his long-held, unexamined prejudices: Americans were all fat, ignorant, warmongering thugs. Of course I didn't see it that way, with my grounding in Philip Roth, Updike, not to mention -

“- We're talking about the people who invented rock and roll here,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, right. And then there's that famous American band, the Beatles.”

“Okay, but you know what Lennon said? He'd felt American ever since he heard Heartbreak Hotel.”

That shut him up, for a bit.

Amanda was also conflicted, as you'd expect. She was convinced by then that I was actually capable of making some money, and she wasn't above enjoying the kudos of living with 'rock star', though she couldn't quite let go of those inverted commas. But then she said -

“- You realise you couldn't do this if we had kids, don't you?”

The taxi was booked. I was doing the last-minute rummage to check passport, boarding pass, plectrums.

“Sorry. I don't know why I said that. Do you really need that coat? It'll be a drag at the airport.”

What she said came as such a left-field blow that I didn't know where to start. (What's this about kids? Who says I couldn't do it with kids? Are you saying I should quit? If I do, what the fuck else am I supposed to do? I thought you didn't want kids. YOU SAID YOU DIDN'T WANT KIDS!) But her method was becoming familiar, this shoot-and-scoot tactic of making a point without giving me a chance to respond. It was fear, looking back, that was behind it. She was afraid of a proper discussion because of all the unfaceable shit it would throw up at us once we started digging in those dark corners.

My taxi beeped.

“You could come with us next time,” I said, kissing her cheek. “You could play tambourine. The kid could shake a rattle.”

Not great, I admit, but what would you have said?



It started well. I loved New York. That feeling of having been there before, in a dream, a sense of returning to a spiritual home. The dream was of course the movies, but also the novels and the music. And Jake's anti-Americanism didn't seem to extend to the female American fans of our band. He was single now, and enjoying himself, though there was a certain urgency about it, like a man downing his penultimate pint so he could get another in before last orders. Did he feel under time pressure because he was losing his hair? It's not the sort of thing you can ask. He let himself down in Pittsburgh. Nothing major, just a bit slurred and clumsy and generally below par. You could feel the crowd notice.

By then I'd been feeling an anxiety of my own. Staring out of the window at the hills of Kentucky, I managed to untangle the issues in my head. There were two of them, possibly related. One: Amanda wanted me to stay at home and have children with her. Two: I hadn't written a song for nearly six months and the thought of trying to filled me with fear.




The second anxiety eased as we drove into Nashville. Something about the skyscrapers – more sparse than in New York, here they had room to breathe amid a clear blue sky. Human endeavour plus nature's infinity; who wouldn't feel inspired? And this was after all the capital of country. I put on a country compilation that I could tell even Jake sort of secretly enjoyed. Bob did a “Yee-ha!” and I thought: Of course I'll write more songs. The show was good too, the crowd friendly and up-for-it in a way you just don’t get in sceptical, jaded London. But then we ended up doing tequila slammers with the local support act who turned out not to be very interesting after all. So I began our first day off in a fortnight with a hangover. It was the sort of mistake I was supposed to have grown out of.

Jake and I set out across town with a vague plan of finding a famous vintage guitar shop, not that we could afford to buy much. We were trudging up a hill under an oppressive sun when I foolishly shared the second anxiety with Jake.

“Maybe you're a genius after all,” said Jake, not nicely. “Maybe that's why you've got writer's block. Because you're a genius.”

“Well, where's your hit single?” He could be a dick; I could be a dick. “I keep waiting for it, but it's not happening for you either, is it?”

He pushed on ahead of me. His waist above his jeans looked doughy, the famous American portions taking their toll. (So the portions are bigger? Just leave half.) Jake had also forgotten his baseball cap and I could see the skin turning pink beneath the thinning hair on his crown.

He turned round. “Maybe you should go solo, see how you find that. You could stay here, become a genuine, bona fide, honest-to-God country singer.”

He turned back and kept walking. I tried to steer us back onto safer territory.

“You know you should just surrender to the country, Jake. It's such a relief when you give in. Face it, country rocks.”

But when he turned round, he looked angry. “Are we having musical differences? Because ...”

He was cut off by a familiar-sounding whistle. We’d arrived at a railway line. The train approached at an easy pace and took a good five minutes to roll by, plenty of time for us to admire the graffiti. I liked the way that no-one had bothered to wash it off, as if there were a tacit agreement between the vandal-artists and the rail company. This was Union Pacific Railroad, which reminded me of the Westerns I'd watched as a kid. Another magical, American touch. I looked over at Jake and saw he was almost smiling now, half-glancing at me. I sat down on a patch of grass and after a minute he sat beside me as the train rumbled and creaked its way past. When it had gone Jake held a hand out. I shook it. He got to his feet and yanked me up after him. The silence that followed as we walked on I think you could almost call companionable.


Then I saw the black building with one red door and one yellow door, and the sign, THIRD MAN RECORDS.

“Hey, I've heard about this. It's Jack White's.”

“What is it, a record shop?”

“Yeah, but it's, like, his record label. He might be there now.”

“I'm not in the mood to meet Jack White. I'm gonna scout ahead for lunch. Call me when you're finished.”

That seemed like a good idea. And if he was going to sneak a quick beer, so what? We didn't have a show that night. I went in. The staff were all beautiful women. So not your typical record shop. Maybe this added to my sense of disquiet, a tinnitus-like ring of anxiety. What was it really about? Writer's block? Resentment over the vast talent and wealth and general coolness of Jack White? I was about to leave empty-handed when a bloke stumbled out of a photo booth-type-thing.

“Woah, check this out,” he said. He wore a cheap Tanglewood guitar, strings rattling, a cowboy hat, sweaty Jack Daniels t-shirt. “I'm cuttin' a record here.”

Yes, there was beer on his breath, but his expectation that I should be friendly was enough to shame me into cooperating.

“This here booth is like a miniature recording studio. You put your money in here, and when this light goes red? You're rocking. Here's mine.” He held up a 7 inch in its paper sleeve. “I suck on this. I suck in general but hey, it's fun to play, right? I'm Sandy.” He held out a hand. Before I knew what I was doing, I'd paid my fifteen dollars and was standing in the booth with Sandy's Tanglewood round my neck, facing the red light. I played The Sweetest Pain, which calmed me down a bit. Partly because it reminded me of Amanda and it always will. In the early days, when we were having a great deal of sex, I’d get sore and she’d ask if I was okay to carry on. Yes, I’d say, because this was good pain. The sweetest pain. In the song, it’s ostensibly a reference to that line in Romeo and Juliet about parting being such sweet sorrow. But for me and Amanda it was always a lovers’ private joke. Anyway. It was a good song. And who's to say even better stuff didn't lie ahead? I was 33, younger than Springsteen when he wrote most of the Born in the USA album. Twenty-eight years younger than Cohen when he wrote Hallelujah. While the record was cut I shot the breeze with Sandy. Then I heard the playback. It sounded like something from the 20s. It sounded like a piece of history.

“Kiss my ass if that ain’t great. What're you, some kind of musician?”

I told him the name of the band, invited him to come to our show the next night, offered to put him on the guest list, and left with a feeling that this was a great country. I've still got the record somewhere.



Jake had been for a couple of soothing beers and was in a good mood when I found him. I went to the bar and ordered a nachos for us to share, plus a diet coke for me.

When he saw the coke, Jake put on his hillbilly voice. “Well, if it ain't the soda-pop kid ...”

“It's three in the afternoon,” I said.

Still as the hillbilly: “Hell, it's five o'clock somewhere.”

This was a line from an Alan Jackson song I'd played him, which of course he'd been snarky about. I took his use of it as a concession to country, or America or maybe just me, and ordered a beer with the next round. A band was setting up – two girls, women I should say; they were at least my age - one on mandolin and one on guitar, and a bloke on double-bass. The mandolin girl (I'm just going to call them girls, okay?) wore a hat, cut-off jeans and boots, golden hair and golden thighs flashing in the sunlight that streamed in through the windows and onto the stage. The guitar girl was lanky with a sleek brown bob, black jeans and a blouse. They seemed to clash, but then when they tested the mics by singing some harmonies it was beautiful. The double bassist was a balding blonde guy with a full beard and an open waistcoat. Which one's boyfriend was he? Often these acts involve a couple, but there was something, not unfriendly but chaste about the way they set up and tuned up together. Then he said something to them both and the mandolin girl laughed, head thrown back, breasts thrust forward, while guitar girl rolled her eyes.

“Hey Soda-pop!” Jake was waving to me, not caring that his fake hillbilly accent could be heard above the twang of the mandolin. “A man could die of thirst around here.”

I carried the beers back to the table.

They were the best band I'd seen for ages. The songs were world-weary, unlucky-in-love stuff, sad but funny. The girls' voices coiled around each other and blended gorgeously. They were great with the audience as well. It was a semi-distracted, late-afternoon crowd. But the band soon grabbed their attention.

“This is song about fading passion,” said the guitar girl.

“Passion fades?” said the bassist.

“It does for some of us, sweetheart.”

“I thought it was because you didn't want the commitment right now.”

Then the mandolin girl chimed in. “Y'all are still in therapy, right?” To the crowd: “See how weird it gets with these two? Can you imagine sharing a tour bus with these guys? I mean I love them and all. But still -”

“Did she say she loves me? Things are looking up, boys.”

Then the guitar girl, eyes to the ceiling, sighed. “Declan, we trusted you with that microphone. Now honour that trust. This song's called Fading Lights. I have no idea why I wrote it.”

It was impossible to tell how much of this was scripted. I watched the guitar girl and the bassist, thinking that this was the way to be with your ex - self-deprecating, harmlessly bantering in public, older and wiser but not bitter.

It became clear that the songs were written by guitar girl, and as each one went by I'd be chasing it, trying to figure out made it work so well, how it could be satisfyingly predictable and yet full of surprises, how the lyrics could be so simple and yet profound. Then there was the obligatory curve-ball cover: Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks, which they turned from a defiantly laddish drinking anthem into a mournful tale of heartbreak. It made me wonder if that was how Friends in Low Places had started, before Garth got his chubby mitts on it.


After the set they carried their gear out, then Declan headed to the bar. The girls came over and joined a fouresome on the opposite side of our table, just out of earshot as piped music started up. I turned to Jake.

“I loved that,” I said. But he was staring across the table with a look I knew very well. He was staring, of course, at Mandolin Girl. Then he lunged across the table and I heard him shout, “That was bloody marvellous. May I buy you girls a drink?”

He'd poshed-up his accent, either for the sake of trans-Atlantic clarity or to impress them with a Hugh Grant act.

Mandolin Girl looked like she might be considering it, struck by this handsome bloke looming at her, but Guitar Girl shook her head, pointing at the bar, where Declan was loading a tray with beers. As Jake sat back I caught Guitar Girl's eye, tried to convey something of my musical admiration in a nod, which she seemed to interpret as intended.

“Stuck-up cow,” said Jake, and I got up and walked around the table. I hovered awkwardly until I got Guitar Girl's attention – the hint of alarm in her almond-shaped eyes, the smell of shampoo on her brown bob. I babbled something, trying to get across how good I thought they were, and also that this should mean something to her as I was a musician myself and so knew what I was talking about. You can believe me or not, but at the time I wanted nothing more than for her to understand that her talent was genuine. That's all any of us want, we musicians. Like I said, you can believe me or not.

“Thank you,” she said. “Now sit down. You're making me nervous.”


More beers were placed in front of us. I went to the restroom and pissed hurriedly and at one point I went to the bar, but mostly I was sitting very close to Colette, talking about music and love. I was aware that over her shoulder Jake was now snogging Mandolin Girl, I kept seeing his pale hand stroking her thigh, on which tiny golden hairs shone, just beneath the high hem of her cut-off jeans.

Colette was born in Texas and had moved to Nashville to pursue her music eight years ago. As we talked I heard myself in contrast to her easy drawl – less pronounced than Mandolin Girl's twang, but definitely there, about two notches down from Gina Davis in Thelma and Louise. I had a go at her accent and she had a go at mine, and we agreed that I could do hers much better.

I showed her my record, and she said she'd intended to cut one herself, but hadn't got round to it. She asked about Amanda and I told her a fair bit.

“So she doesn't understand you, right?” she said. She looked at me steadily as she sipped her beer.

“Are you taking the piss?”

“What's that? You mean am I fucking with you? No, I'm not. It just sounds like she doesn't understand what it's like for musicians. For artists in general.”

That was a scary thought. I tried to keep it light, explaining Amanda's failure to get the Alan Partridge gag about the best Beatles album.

“Okay, I get it,” she said, smiling. “But you know what a better question is? What's your favourite Beatles album?”

“Yes. And what's yours?”

“Whichever one has Eight Days a Week on it. Because that just sounds like being in love.”

I shook my head. “You're so ...”

“Don't say cool,” she laughed. “I am not cool.”

She put her glass down, lay her hand on my shoulder and leaned in.

“Okay, okay.” Declan was looming over us. His eyes looked bloodshot and the veins in his long neck stood out. The loveable doofus he'd been on stage was gone. “I'm getting out of here, Col.”

“You're sure?”

“Why the hell would I stay?” His head nodded towards me but his gaze remained locked on her.

“Music? Beer?”

“Fuck you.”

She winced, more in sorrow than anger, refusing, I thought, to give up on him. “I'm sorry, Declan.”

“Yeah right. So I guess you want me to pack up all your shit, too.”

“We loaded up already. Remember? Are you okay? I mean, are you sure you're okay to drive?”

“Am I okay to drive? What do you care? You know sometimes you sound just like a pain-in-the-ass wife. So I guess I've got the worst of both worlds.” He looked down at me. “Enjoy the special relationship,” he said.

When he'd gone she gave me a sad smile.

“We were engaged. I broke it off. I guess that would do it, right?”

I put my hand on her back. It was the first time I touched her and I was surprised at the sharpness of her shoulder blade. She put a hand on my thigh, raised her beer. “To the special relationship.”

The next act started up, a young, too-screechy blues singer drowning himself out with a muddy slide guitar.

“So can your band survive this thing with you and Declan?” I asked.

Colette shrugged, looking quite tough. “Probably not, but I have plenty of other ideas. Anyway.” She put her hand on my thigh. “Come back to my apartment?”





We shared a cab. I took the front seat, at one point turning to see Jake and Mandolin Girl still going at it. Pressed up against the door by Mandolin's arse, Collette gave me such an understated look of stoical endurance that I laughed. Jake came up for air.

“Jake, we leave at ten tomorrow. Right?”

“I'll be there.”

“Shake on it.”

I reached round and we shook hands. Jake gave a slight nod to Collette, a complicit wink.


Colette's apartment was on a busy street among bars and shops. I followed her narrow back up a flight of stairs. As she unlocked the door I came up behind her and kissed her neck, her clever, musician’s ears.

“Okay, but first I want to show you something.”

We stepped into her apartment. Sparse furnishings. Plenty of books, the New York Times, a couple of novels, and general mess strewn around the place. “Okay, so I'm a mess, but I wasn't expecting you.” She pointed at me. “Hey! Potential song idea!” She dumped her leather jacket. “Make yourself at home.”

I sat down while she produced a bottle of Jack Daniels, shot glasses and a bottle of coke.

She plucked an acoustic guitar from its stand and strummed a few chords. Eight Days a Week. She was on the hold me, love me bit when she paused at a seventh chord. “Now that,” she said, “is fucking genius.” She flipped the guitar over and thrust it into my hands. “Show me what you can do.”

“Shit. This feels like a test.”

“Don't worry. I'm just going to sit here, quietly judging you. Coke?” She was pouring Jack Daniels into two shot glasses on the coffee table that sat between us.

“No thanks.”

I played The Sweetest Pain for the second time that day. When I'd finished, she said, “It's great. I'm relieved. I mean, what if you sucked? What then?”

The question would have to wait because she had stood up and was stepping towards me, unbuttoning her blouse.



What makes great sex? I think we can agree that it at least partly depends on what's going through your mind at the time. Unless you think the mind is totally blank, and that's what makes it great, the obliteration of thought by sensation. Well, my mind was not blank while I was having sex with Colette. Some things I thought about:

One: Jarvis Cocker. The Pulp singer, I remember, was asked what sort of girls he liked. His reply was that he tended to go for the fuller figure, partly because he himself was thin. Jarvis having sex with a thin girl, he said, was 'like two skeletons fighting in the dark'. Jarvis's most memorable line, unfortunately.

Two: Colette and her talent. The wit, wisdom and compassion that I'd heard in her songs and her conversation. How much I respected, admired and liked her.

Three: Jake's hand sliding up Mandolin's golden thigh.

Four: Jenna, the goth girl, standing with her robe open, staring at me and sticking out her tongue.

Five: Amanda.

The first of these I thought about because it related to my current difficulty; the second because I hoped it would help me with that difficulty, the third and fourth because they actually did help with the difficulty, and the fifth because I couldn't help it.


But it happened, and afterwards it felt good to lie in her arms.

“Would you have still had sex with me if I'd sucked?” I was trying out the American bluntness with matters sexual.

She gave a salty laugh. “Yeah, I probably would've done. Because you're cute and I like you. But … I dunno, it's funny … maybe I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.”

“And you?”

“God, yeah. I think you're bloody great.”

“And yet ...” She kissed me lightly on the lips, looked into my eyes. The evening light coming in through her window lightened her brown irises, turning them yellow. “It's just that this isn't exactly a passion raging beyond your control now, is it?”

I started to protest.

“Shh. It's okay.” She kissed me again, put her head on my chest. “I can settle for being bloody great.” I stroked her hair. I heard the faint thud of music from the bar down the road, and beyond that, the whistle of the freight train.

“The lonesome whistle,” she said. “In songs it's always a lonesome whistle, but for me, it makes me feel less alone.”

“You know you're wrong about one thing, Colette. You are cool.”

She sighed. “I know.”




Next morning, as I pulled on my new cowboy boots, Colette sat on the edge of the couch strumming her guitar.

“Are you getting my oh-so-subtle message here?”

I realised the song was You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.

“Me too,” I said.

She put the guitar down and we kissed.

I grabbed her arse, said, “Stop it, or you're gonna make me late.”

She smiled. “Yeah right. Hey, you'll look me up next time you're in Nashville, right?”

“Sure. I'll miss you.” It was true.

She was kissing, then biting my neck, quite hard. She laughed wickedly. “I've tagged you. You're mine, dude. Return the favour?” She pulled up her top. “Down here. We don't want to upset Declan more than is strictly necessary.”

I got down on my knees, found a bite of spare flesh and sucked it through my teeth.

“Something to remember me by,” I said when I'd finished.

“Something by which to remember me,” she said in an English accent. As herself: “Now get outta here.” She handed me my record. “And don't forget this.”


I was drinking coffee in the lobby with an anxious Bob when Jake reeled in at ten-forty. He was flushed with sunburn and last night's drink. His T shirt was on inside out. Perched on his head, backwards, was Mandolin’s Stetson. He shot me a look of complicity which made me hate myself.




Jimi Hendrix on tour, according to legend: He'd arrive in a city and walk around until he found a guitar shop. He'd go in, maul a couple of Strats and choose one for that night's show. The Strat would end up either trashed on stage – smashed to pieces or maybe drenched in gasoline and burned alive – or he'd give it away or simply leave it behind. Then, guitarless and unencumbered, he'd hit the town: Freedom! He'd end up having sex with one or more girls and crashing where his head hit the pillow, couch or carpet. (Or did the world's greatest guitarist sometimes just pass out between a woman's thighs?) The manager, Chas Chandler, faced the headache each morning of finding Hendrix, who could be anywhere in the city, and getting him the hell on the road.

Is it facile to draw a parallel between the way Hendrix treated women and the way he treated guitars? One thing's for sure: I am no Jimi Hendrix. And I'm still playing the same sunburst Telecaster my mum gave me on my 18th birthday.




On the flight home, I tried to read the Washington Post, and gave up when I hit on the phrase 'renovations would ruin the historic building's architectural integrity'. From then on, I had the word 'integrity' going round and round in my head like a Mika single. I'd never given it much thought before, and only appreciated its value now it was gone. It was as if I'd left part of myself in that apartment in Nashville, and now had to come home, deformed and incomplete, to face the miserable and unachievable task of trying to bullshit the love of my life into believing that nothing had changed.



Amanda opened the door, fell into my arms.

“I've missed you,” she said. We kissed. Then she stopped, held me at arm's length, the colour draining from her face.





***



The official version is that our band was killed by the internet. And it's true that no-one sells CDs any more. Unless you're Take That, Adele, or indeed that famous alt-country cross-over artist, Colette Jones. But there were other factors – the deterioration of my song-writing; Jake's drugs problems and declining looks. I felt sorry for myself, of course, and for Jake, most of the time, but also for Bob who'd probably now never get another chance. So when the label went under and he called me to ask for my help in moving out of the boxy office-cum-kitchen at the Kilburn premises, it was the least I could do.


“Okay, so it's a shit sandwich,” said Bob. “But we've got to eat it. How about a beer to wash it down with? It's five o'clock somewhere.”

“I'd better not.” I had a late shift at the British Gas call centre.

“Right, this box here is a load of crap that we've accumulated over the years. Photos, clippings, various demos and stuff. The way I'm doing it, this pile is stuff to chuck, this pile is stuff to keep, this pile is stuff to sell.”

We began sorting through the box. I remembered doing this as I moved out of the house I'd shared with Amanda, the constant decisions, the buffeting of memories and regrets.

“Woah. Jake with hair.”

He held up an early picture. Yes, Jake looked gorgeous. But my gaze quickly sought my younger self, as it always does in moments like this. I tried to remember how it felt to be so slim, and to not have tinnitus.

“Chuck it,” I said.

He put it on the junk pile and upended a box of various CDs. We began to rummage.

“Are you still in touch?”

“Not really.”

The last few times I'd seen Jake had followed the same pattern. We'd go out for a drink or a meal, and I'd try to pretend that I hadn't noticed that he was already smashed. Then he'd get soppy, then he'd ask me for money, and I'd refuse, and he'd get nasty, and I'd have to help him home because I was afraid to leave him out in town in that state. The most recent time, I realised he was smashed, had the one drink and left.

I was trying to decide whether or not to keep a CD on which was written The Sweetest Pain extended mix, wondering if, under the straitened circumstances, it might be wiser just to eBay it – we still had fans who lapped up what was left of our memorabilia - when Bob said, “Hey, what's this? It's from the US. Nashville.” He looked at me with some sympathy as well as pity. “Don't worry. They'll be inundated with stuff. They probably never listened to it.”

“I never sent a demo to Nashville,” I said.

He didn't believe me. “Well, Nashville sent one to you.” He tossed it over.

But the package was not CD-shaped. The writing was elaborate with a certain elegance at the expense of legibility. And female. I opened it. It was a record, a 7-inch single on whose sleeve was written: “This recording was performed live inside the THIRD MAN RECORD BOOTH.”

In Bob's pile of shit to sell was a record player. I moved it to the counter and plugged it in. My hands were shaky as I lowered the needle. There was the familiar retro-sounding fizz and crackle, then a springy, major-key waltz strummed on a capo'd acoustic. Then the voice.

“He said would you still love me if my music sucked? / I said I don't know but I'm glad that we … f-ell down together, and I lay in your arms / Now there's a bite on my belly and an ache in my heart ...”

“Bloody hell,” said Bob. “Colette.”

It was her alright. The same voice that was now famous. But it was also lighter; you could tell she was smiling as she sang.

“And I hope you find love / And I hope you stay free / Well here's something by which to remember me ...”

Afterwards, Bob said, “Did she ever release that?”

I shook my head.

“So she wrote that just for you?”

I nodded, cleared my throat. “Bob, I think I'll have that beer after all.”

“Good man.” On his way to the fridge, he lowered the needle again. We listened and drank. When it was over, he said, “That must have taken her ages.”

“Not really. Don't forget she's very talented.”

I got up and placed the record back in its flimsy sleeve.

“Sell or keep? You realise that's worth a lot now.”

“Keep,” I said, and placed it carefully in the box. This was one test I was determined not to fail.