Wednesday, August 31

Songs for going away for a little while

The journey to California is a dull tale involving the following: an overweight suitcase; three films (Carol, Where The Wild Things Are, Star Wars); a two-hour wait in line at Oakland airport security; a smooth, cool taxi ride; and a quiet arrival to a pillow-less bed.

But before that, there are messages and goodbyes, and a face crinkled up with tears at the train station. My parents shrink to tiny figures as the platform disappears out of view. I think of that over-quoted but irritatingly spot-on Kerouac line: 'What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.'

A few days later I am standing in a thrift store on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue listening to Amy Winehouse sing, 'He walks away / The sun goes down / He takes the day / But I'm grown / And in your way / In this blue shade / My tears dry on their own'. It's the same sentiment, right? The initial pain of leaving, and how it forces you to look ahead, muster some independence, get on with the next crazy venture. In conversations during these early days we all admit how it was hard to say goodbye, but then the moment passed and it was like, 'right, what's next?'

I will always hate goodbyes though. They might be a necessary manifestation of everything that's good in a relationship, but that doesn't make them any easier. Aged five I cried and cried over a film in which a child is forced to abandon her favourite old toys when the family move home. The toys sit alone on the kerb waiting for the rubbish lorry. I couldn't bear it. I hate that scene in Frances Ha too, when she waves goodbye to her parents in a Californian airport, waves as an escalator lifts her away from them towards a New York-bound plane.

A goodbye is a kind of loss. You lose whatever it is you are saying goodbye to; not the people, necessarily, but the part of your life they represent, a certain time and place. It's a loss of yourself, I guess. You'll never get that old version of you back. While discussing Heart of Darkness in British Literature class today, we touch briefly on the Buddhist concept of dukkha: the pain and suffering of loss, the inevitability of it, how it can never be satisfied. But maybe the pain of loss should never be satisfied, because then we'd never explore beyond it. We'd just remain trapped by it.

Anyway. All of this is just a long-winded explanation of the mix I made before I left. Songs for going away for a little while. These songs will take you from the goodbye tears, the initial feeling of loss and emptiness and a lack of love for the new venture (or maybe the feeling of being left behind), to finding your way through the lonesome day, and the energy of newness that brings: the enjoyment of and gratitude for the experience.

Or as Max puts it in Where The Wild Things Are: 'let the wild rumpus start!'

*   *   * 

Songs for going away for a little while

1. She's Gone  //  Hall & Oates
2. Long Black Veil  //  Richard Hawley
3. I Need My Girl  //  The National
4. Lonely Town  //  Brandon Flowers
5. Lady With The Braid  //  Dory Previn
6. Sloop John B  //  The Beach Boys
7. Lonesome Day (live, Glasgow 2016)  //  Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
8. Forever Wild  //  Willie Nile
9. Young Americans  //  David Bowie
10. Wagon Wheel  //  Lou Reed
11. Balance  //  Future Islands
12. Thank You  //  Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
13. If Not For You  //  George Harrison 
14. This Hard Land  //  Bruce Springsteen

Sunday, August 14

Cardiff, briefly

A long evening drive: followed the sun west as it headed over the horizon and the sky slowly turned from pale puffed-out blue to pinky indigo streaked with nude fire. The sun finally disappeared by the Severn Bridge. Headlights stuttered and lorries pulled past, hushed to smoothness by the sky. 

After testing the waters of Cardiff Parkrun the following morning: visited St Fagan's Museum of Welsh Life, a large open air assembling of Welsh buildings of different eras, from a tiny nineteenth century cottage to a large red farmhouse, a school, and a chapel that's still in use. A walk through Welsh history. These buildings have been deconstructed brick by brick and carefully rebuilt at St Fagan's, so that they are a perfect preservation of older times, even down to the charred smell of Celtic dwellings and the fusty dampness of rural Victorian rooms. In the most recent building, a cottage from 1985, trays of fish and chips sit in front of a hulking black television. 

Entry's free, and it's an essential visit for anybody who loves vintage ephemera, freshly baked bara brith, and pretending to be in a different time, a different life. 

In the evening: dinner on the bay. The air was clear and cool, the area rammed with funfair visitors, pizza-hunters, and girls all dressed up for the evening. 

Before the drive home the following morning: a walk over the river and through the park to a Danish bakery. Resisted the strong temptation to eat all of the pastries; settled for a kanelsnegle (cinnamon snail) and black coffee. I don't need to tell you that it tasted really, really good. 

Drove back over the bridge, the sky teal grey. Remembered the Scandi-noir TV show addiction of the previous winter, and how long ago that seems.

Friday, August 12

Liner notes | 04

1. The familiar top deck bus ride across north Devon in misty rain. Wouldn't have it any other way.

2. North Cornwall. Won't go a single year without a pilgrimage to this coastline.

3, 4. Meet Nelson, my gran's three-legged purring wonder. He's arrogant and affectionate in equal parts and he'll charm anybody he meets.

5, 6. The Exploding Bakery, Exeter. All station-side coffee stops need to be like this.

7. A haul from Exeter's finest record store, Rooster Records. That Stone The Crows record is my favourite music purchase so far this year.

8, 9. Some deer eat grass with all their friends. Others go solo in search of waterlilies.

Tuesday, August 9

Early ears

1. The Very Best of The Beach Boys
I was sitting on my best friend’s bed on a warm day in late spring. We were twelve. ‘This one’s got a palm tree on it and surfer writing,’ she said to me. ‘And this one’s similar but in pink.’ Holding up the t-shirts for me to inspect, she added, ‘they were £3.99 for two, from this shop called H&M.’ 

Get Mum to take me to H&M, I told myself. Then I noticed the CD lying on the bed next to my friend’s feet. A blue silhouetted surfer riding a wave under a yellow sky, the words ‘The Very Best of the Beach Boys’ typed across the top. Suddenly I recalled a drive with my aunt and uncle on the way home from the Year 6 disco three summers ago. My undersized ears were full of DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby, the closing song at every school disco, and my aunt was trying to undo the damage with a tape full of sunny jangly guitars and soft harmonies. The tape was faded green and black with a photo of a white goat on the front. It sounded ok, but I was more interested in remembering how we’d all punched the air at every ‘ooh, ah’ of Hey Baby. 

The CD came from a bargain bin in HMV, bought by my friend's older sister. We played it, and Fun Fun Fun ran through my head for days afterwards. It wasn't long before I had my own copy of the CD. I never found those t-shirts though.

(twelve, reading a teen music magazine while waiting for my second Busted show - practising for future Springsteen pit queues maybe - and feeling far more excited than I look)

2. Eye of the Tiger
State schools don’t offer much in the way of music lessons. One hour a week until you’re fourteen, no grade 8 cello players in sight. We did attempt the basics of reading music. But then we also spent two weeks learning about the Tudor pavane. Inedible and pointless for a group of kids who mostly consumed rap music.

Then, aged thirteen, a glorious half term devoted to rock and roll. Nobody else seemed that bothered, but I loved learning the basic riff of Rock Around The Clock on piano, and a simplified version of When I’m 64. I practised secretly for days until my hands fell in sync with each other, so that when it came to playing in front of the class, I was pretty fluid. One week, a pared down drum kit sat in the middle of the room and we were taught how to drum along to Eye of the Tiger. At home I constructed makeshift drum kits out of jars and pots in the kitchen: babysitting, I found the children’s toy drums and practised on those: until again I hit that moment where my body and the music worked together in one rhythm.

Frustratingly, I never went on to learn piano, or guitar, or drums. I was too interested in books to make time for anything else, too shy to make noise, didn't like trying new things, and didn't know many other kids who played instruments. Maybe this is where state education failed me: I had the interest, but not enough external push to kick my stubbornness up the ass. Something stuck though, from those hours of listening to Bill Haley over and over. When I look at the music I love today, I realise how important that basic Beatles riff on a sticky school keyboard must have been. 

(fourteen years old, then twenty-four years old, and still no better at guitar)

3. Biro tattooed Converse

I only did my Catholic confirmation because I had a vague crush on one of the boys in the group. We were fourteen, and once a week we sat in the cold function room behind the church, which smelled fusty like those dark green bricks you stick plastic flowers in, and talked about God stuff. Orange chairs arranged in a circle, an overenthusiastic nun, and twenty teenagers looking at nothing but the floor. I did not believe in God, but I believed in all the band names I’d tattooed in biro across the sides of my Converse, and I believed in the way the boy I had a slight crush on cocked his head to read those names and nod approvingly. Blink 182. White Lies. Dashboard Confessional. The Jayhawks. The Libertines. Green Day. Jack Johnson. The Killers. 

A giant Federer tattoo sits on top of most of those names now, but look closely underneath and you'll detect a few of them. Ten years on, I still wear the shoes.

Monday, August 8

Glasgow | 03: the necropolis

It's our final morning in Glasgow. The sun's out. We skirt east past the Strathclyde campus, which sprawls along the side of a steep hill, giving the side streets a slightly San Francisco feel. This area's grimier, but no less charming, than the West End: a mix of industrial buildings, student flats, and old shop signage. We visit Papercup Coffee, the coffee shop I've mentioned before. Order toast and americanos. The man in the Orbison t-shirt passes by. Then we walk up the hill to the cathedral.

Maps of the area show a swathe of green called the Glasgow Necropolis, which I'd assumed was just a bit of cemetery belonging to the cathedral. As we approach, it turns out I'm half right. Cemetery: yes. 'Bit of': massive understatement. What I don't realise at the time is that this necropolis, covering a prominent grassy hill, is just as much of a visitor attraction as the twelfth century cathedral it overlooks, and is just as stately too. The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis website shows a photo of the headstones topped with snow, but we're seeing it in all its sun-soaked June glory.

An interdenominational cemetery, the Necropolis has grown considerably since its opening in 1833, becoming a site of architectural, social, historical and cultural importance. Rich, poor, famous, unknown, Christian, Jew, Wee Willie Winkie; all are buried here, in quiet yet extravagant wonder. There's the imposing monument to John Knox, and then the unassuming headstone of a doctor and his six children who slid off the earth one by one in the space of a week. Billy Connolly once said that Glasgow 'doesn't care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead'.

It's hard to capture the hauntingly beautiful atmosphere of the necropolis. To cross the Bridge of Sighs, climb the hill among headstones and walk the gently sloping grass between graves, the city huddled below, is to feel like you've drunk the shrinking potion and stepped into Wonderland. Because the headstones are huge. All of them. They tower over you with their Victorian grandness, planted in rows like stubborn crooked teeth. Some are simple obelisks, others are more ornate: Gothic crosses, urns, miniature temples, statues. It's disorientating, how the stones make you feel so small, but disorientating in an oddly comforting way. You're nestled in the arms of the dead, but you're also open to the fresh Scottish air high above the city. Tombs hollowed out of the rock face are up to 14 feet deep, and yet the graves crowning the hill stand so tall and upright, as if they're reaching up to the sun.

Friday, August 5

Bits of the mind's string | 02

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you go for a long walk in the sunshine with headphones and a coffee, the combination of exercise, fresh air, music and caffeine turns the cranks of your brain faster than you can keep up with, and you end up with a phone full of half-written, slightly incoherent notes.

You can read the first lot here.


Waterloo Station
Sitting wifi-less in Waterloo, next to the strains of a terrible busker (truly terrible), a giant pretzel in my backpack.
Busker now singing ‘Just The Two Of Us’ which he’s dedicated to a passing girl in a summer dress. The busker is wearing red trousers. Of course. 
Walked 15,000 steps today, from Brixton to Waterloo. The streets were bordered with the early green of summer, and schoolgirls clustered in groups outside the fried chicken shops, buses and runners trundling past - 
oh god he’s playing When I’m 64
and grand Georgian houses with cracked grey pillars and broken sweet pea frames and shiny black cars squealing circles outside front doors - 
we shall scrimp and save (our day jobs)
walking on, sore heels and a bit hungry and very tired, approaching the side of the Imperial War Museum, where people are sitting on the grass in 5pm Friday bliss, and this is the -
he’s just referred to Waterloo as Wembley 
this is the -
he’s singing It Must Be Love for the second time
this is the way we came to the Imperial War Museum on that school trip in Year 5, I remember walking across the grass in pairs and the 1940s house, and the fine autumn drizzle, and the rubbery smell of the lunch room, but nearly at Waterloo now -
everybody is refusing to meet his earnest gaze
coming at it from the side, the bit I look down on from the train every morning, and Lower Marsh Street is full of drinkers and bottles clashing in bins (“watch your ears, love”) and I slip under the wide girth of Waterloo’s tracks, the roof of the tunnel like the belly of a beetle, and finally I am passing - 
he’s singing Champagne Supernova
round the side of the station and falling into place with the pilgrimage of commuters, tramp tramp tramp, and tramp on the stairs crying spare ten pence please, and a man drops his cigarettes in the gutter, and another stops to make a phone call, and I am inside the station, and pretzel-bound. 

On the bus home
Saw you yesterday standing outside the bathrooms in the shopping centre, looking down at your phone, waiting for somebody. The last time was over two years ago, on a quiet train back from Waterloo. You were on the phone. I was pretending to be asleep. ‘I got a 2:1,’ you said, on the phone. ‘It - will - do.’ Funny to see you again. Funny to think you’re the same boy I followed up the stairs that rainy summer’s sports day in Year 9, the trees heavy with water, the corridors quiet. Your hood up, and your deep voice.
Still deep. (I’m behind you on the escalators heading down and out, and you’re talking to the person you must’ve been waiting for by the bathrooms: not a girl, as I’d assumed, but a bald middle aged man.) That low, slightly cocksure rumble that was so welcome to my ears among the ratty pre-pubescent chorus at school. You’re broader now and I’m taller than you, more tanned than I was in those pale under-confident years: the boy I wrote about in my diaries is hard to find, as is the girl who held the pen.

Thoughts on gap years
The difference in maturity between an undergraduate straight from school and one who’s taken 1+ years out of education never ceases to surprise me. I used to be against ‘gap yahs’ but now I think everybody should take at least one. You don’t have to do anything amazing like travel to a country nobody’s heard of or do public speaking in the middle east or rescue a Third World community. You can just work in your local shop. But whatever you do, the point is to breathe outside the bubble of education, to experience the reality of the adult world and how you might fit into it, to realise the value of education, and to get a bit closer to knowing what you want to do. So that you’re able to make the most of your undergraduate experience, if and when it comes. 

In a pub in Battersea on a hot wet evening in June
In a pub on the Battersea road. It’s a large open space with high windows, high ceilings and leather sofas, dangling light bulbs and big screens. England are about to play and the pub is noisy with football revellers. A lady breezes out of the door with a fistful of 60th birthday balloons. Hipsters in tortoiseshell glasses and vintage England shirts gaze up at the television. The day’s mugginess has lifted, though it’s still warm. A barmaid plunges her arm through a couple’s loving gaze to retrieve an empty beer mug, a thin swill of amber-ish bubbles blurring past their doe eyes. 

Being British can sometimes feel like a straitjacket: constrained by a certain accent, stepping into a cliched demeanour of being polite, reserved, awkward, self-conscious. 
Self-conscious. That’s the key thing. What I love about American culture is its ability to shed any self-consciousness, to be clear cut and vigorous and full of life. It’s like walking out of a stuffy, old, velvet-lined theatre full of well-spoken, smartly-dressed people, and walking down the city street with the air on your face and people slouching and moving and dancing, and human buzz all around. Lights and life. That’s what the difference between British and American culture feels like to me.