Songs that saved my Life, Pt 2

Following on from last week’s Monday Blogs entry –

You’ve probably experienced this yourself at some transitional point in life – listened to a song, and its melody and/or lyrics leapt out to fill your mind with stunned silence, that weird missed-step feeling of Fate having a hand between your shoulder blades. Regardless of its release date, that song would then become synonymous with a fragment of time when, for a few moments, you didn’t feel quite so unique, or so alone and unheard by the world, depending on how you viewed it.

This is how music has always underscored different aspects of my life. Each year, I’ll find at least one song/album which can define the overall mood based on events, or my mindset. It’s been an ongoing game for a while now, one I believe to be integral to building something like a rapport with the artists involved (though they’ll never know my shadow, of course.)

Taking a leaf out of Simon Goddard’s excellent chronological analysis of The Smiths, I’ve compiled a series of these songs to mark significant periods of time, either in my life or the lives of those I care about. They’re listed according to the chronology of when I first heard them, or how I “relearned” them through the filter of changed circumstances.

Since musical taste is an excellent way of getting to know people, I invite you all to join me; either as entries on your own blogs, or as stand-alone articles. I’ll include relevant personal meanings for each song, and ask that you do the same; as descriptive/sensory as you like. Paint a Vulgar Picture, if necessary – or indeed, a Starry Night. Make it a journal-account of sorts. Keep to around 15-20 songs, include music videos and pictures if you wish; but above all, go in-depth about how these songs wove themselves into the fabric of your being, how they mark those defining moments.

9) Garbage, You Look so Fine / Dido, Thank You, Life for Rent (2004)

Once out of hospital, I was at a loose end. Still not well enough to work full-time, there was a real danger of sliding back into old routines out of sheer boredom, and a need for control; especially as I had picked up some bad new habits inside. This is all too often the case in an inpatient unit that’s packed out with friendly-fire rivals. Anorexia thrives off the curious competition-empathy of sufferers. Us against the World; Us against You. You live in Me.

I made myself look away. Cut off contact with almost all the friends I had made on the ward, since our one tenuous link was the illness; the ones I did keep around, had shown genuine resolve in fighting their demons, which were my demons – and in this state, we were unified and individual at once, for everyone’s backstory is different. But the symptoms remain largely the same, across the board. These women and girls were facing down the world again, just as I was, and we were agreed that it was best to find Distractions as soon as possible.
Also, to reform old attachments.

Friends from school had, to some extent, fallen away – understandably so, for who wants to chase after missed phone calls that are never returned, messages received and left unread or ignored? I was still the emotionless girl who wished only to pace up and down the local streets; daunting, as one old friend put it, when he made the decision to call me first to find out how I was doing.

You look like the old Rai, but with too many years in your eyes, was a line that stuck in my head. Mainly because it was so uncharacteristically poetic of him.

This guy, he was that first love of mine; an old friend from the Clay Pits, who I’d watch from the corner of my eye, and wish to Whoever that I could stop caring about. He knew how I felt, and couldn’t reciprocate – the truth burnt between us in loud silences, for how is it ever easy to discuss with a best friend, the love that could kill such intimacy and trust? So we didn’t. Just another one of those Things.

I gave him the song by Dido, Thank You, from her first album, with its silver-blue light behind my eyes. Every moment spent with him was at once torture, and the pure sunlight of those honeyed evenings we’d spent in the Pit, barely 3 years before my fall, chasing each other and the rest of the gang through the tangled webs of grass. That almond-paste smell of hawthorn petals, is intrinsically linked with him in my mind.

Clay pits

He was my rock in late 2004, when – suffering a relapse, and staring down the barrel of another long inpatient stay – I grasped desperately at the only other option: education. It seemed the only logical option, other than slow decay again, and bouncing off the walls behind a locked door. I was pretty much back to pre-hospital weight, and had the additional (silent) concern / possible-reproach of my family, on my shoulders. I don’t know this for fact, but that’s how it felt. Such bitter guilt, to have failed.

Just prior to signing up for sixth form again – this time at my old school, where it was hoped that the familiarity of the grounds and the consistency of classes would have a stabilizing effect – I attended the barn party of another old friend. He was in the habit of throwing these things, impromptu as they were, and packed with ex-school mates, nostalgia-fest music (Offspring, anyone?) and of course, kegs. My dear friend was there too, having coaxed-prodded me out of my own head for an evening.

I’ll never forget how cold his hands were, holding my face – like this – gently on the cheeks, while we stood there in the black-diamond air of midnight. Our breath made little silver plumes, to mingle with the purple smoke of the bonfire nearby (this was the only thing keeping me alive; so raw-boned, but determined to stick it out and drink with friends, though the October night was full of frozen stars.) I didn’t think he was going to kiss me, that was too much to expect; and indeed, I knew he had a girlfriend by that point. It still made little bursts of pain in my chest to think about it, but anorexia had managed to dull this somewhat, like a knife repeatedly striking a wall of stone.

What he did do was lean in on my right ear, breathing hot alcohol breath down it and my neck, to whisper that I was Going to be fine. Everything would turn out OK, because I was fantastic, and he believed in me.

Not the usual cynical stuff, then. He really was drunk. But it struck down so hard inside me that I couldn’t reply, for all the shards of tears in my throat. So I just nodded; let him hug me, in that hesitant way of people who were (as my mother put it once) so afraid they would break me in two.
When he staggered off into the dark, out of the firelight, I left to go home. There wasn’t any more reason to stay; but then again, I could acknowledge to myself (with a small smile) that there was less reason to leave now, too.

His favourite song, when we were in school together, was by Garbage – You look so Fine. I wore dragonfly earrings in his honour.

you look so fine

10) Coldplay, Talk / Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit (2004-6)

Sixth form turned out to be as hectic as I’d feared, with its deadlines and the hormonal clouds of classmates mingling with deodorant and BO. Being three years older than everyone, with that hunted/haunted look of someone already out in the world, I rarely spoke – but absorbed whatever I could, whatever got past the anorexia-bitch. English Literature, Language and Film Studies – these seemed a good place to start.

I don’t regret a moment, except perhaps to (wistfully) wish that I’d been well enough to appreciate the whole experience more – especially while learning about Weimar cinema in Film Studies, with the relative historical context (pre-WW2, post-WW1); and dissecting Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which remains my favourite film to this day. It is, with the song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, synonymous with those evenings spent studying in the heat of Ma’s back garden, where the air was thick and heavy as library dust. Rum would burn the back of my throat, as I crooked my head back to study that indifferent sky, fading as it was from turquoise to indigo. Curiosity, and this clawing need to learn, would sustain me through the raw times. This holds true today.

I also tried signing up for the RAF, just after exams had finished, since I still had no clear idea of what I wanted to do for a profession. Following my parents seemed a good idea, though into Intelligence rather than Signals / Engineering. Everything was going well, with an above-average grade on the BARB, and secured background checks … until they took a look at my medical history. This couldn’t exactly be ignored, though I had tried to (literally) pad out the truth by wearing heavier clothing, and tactfully meandering around some of the more probing questions.
It didn’t work. The guys in the recruitment centre were kind; they smiled, and handed back my medical form, while telling me to come back in five years when I was completely clear of the hospital’s shadow, and had gained about five kilos.

Ah well. Better luck next time.

“I am reality.”

The teacher who would leave an imprint on my life, as so many of them do, had a real thing for the band Coldplay. I’d never given them much attention before, but the album X&Y turned out to be a surprisingly nuanced soundtrack for those years spent learning what it meant to be – to feel – like a human being again. There was this constant knot of fear – of falling behind, of failing, in lessons and in the twisted face of the eating disorder that was screaming blue murder for me to Fucking Pay Attention to it.

As some kind of desperate grab for stability, I latched onto this guy. Married, as they inevitably are, and furthermore out of reach by virtue of his profession – but a friendly face, nonetheless, and an influence. So it goes that I tend to ricochet from one “teacher” to another, picking up new traits, sometimes leaving a trail of footprints, or just the tiniest fleck of a shadow.

My Ma has never understood this constant falling-for-guys-I -can’t-have. She figures that by indulging in such feelings for someone who might never know the truth, or whose circumstances prevent them from reciprocating, I am afraid of commitment.
This might be so. I do enjoy my own company, more than ever these days, and always will. That being said, I cannot share the belief that such feelings are any less true, just because they go unknown / unanswered, and are not fixed in the “reality” of physical contact or proximity.

Love at a distance, is still love – so long as we remain aware of the silent grace this entails.

Talk, by Coldplay, always brings back that sepia-smile of memory.

11) Bright Eyes, No one would riot for Less / The Last Shadow Puppets, Age of the Understatement / Joy Division, Love will Tear us Apart / Depeche Mode ft. Mike Shinoda, Enjoy the Silence, 2004 remix (2008-9)

… And then came one I could actually have.

Quite unexpectedly. With improved health, early 2008 saw me cautiously treading water in the online-dating scene, after being teased (by my Ma) into creating a few accounts. This flatlined pretty quickly. It was hard to take most of the profile names seriously, let alone the “people” behind the profiles; though I did find a couple of gems, who remain dear – if distant – friends.

J began this way, dropping into my life and Myspace inbox (of all places) one blue-shadows Friday night. It was getting towards that hour when solitary inebriation takes over, and the household is full of quiet thoughts, and most other people are asleep; when the writers of the world are either settling down to the latest Agony (bottle of wine or whatever, mandatory) or are riffling through the internet pages for similarly-tormented minds. Polite as you please, he left a note of some rambling-meandering overtures, with a cute little hesitant “Hello, by the way,” tacked on the end.

I responded to this introduction with what can only be described as a bite of cranberry, after a week of lechy messages from other Myspace members. My own politeness had frayed out. It’s a wonder that he replied at all.

But he did, and has never stopped giving me second chances since. Though he does like to tease me about that fragile beginning, when it could’ve gone wholly the other way – our paths might never have merged, and a five-year relationship would never have made it off the screen.

The physical distance was by turns a godsend, and pure agony. We were/are solitary creatures by nature. And there is no thrill to match that of the Friday afternoons of anticipation – barrelling out of work (for I was employed full-time by then), scrubbing-up-changing-outfits-doing-hair, before dashing for the train that would rattle-bang its way up the line into London (all seething air and clatter of pigeons, too many feet and The Last Shadow Puppets in my ears) –

Animal Genius: Pegions

to finally stand in the grotty train station at the other end of that sweary, sweaty journey, listening for the Mini’s whine, and blinking in the hazy evening sunlight.

Our weekends were full of pubs, and the Downs; we circled on that constant belt of air running between the latter and the Beacon, a great green wave in the distance, which would soon become friend and foe as our hikes advanced. I became part of the mosaic of his home life, as he did mine – though to a lesser degree, since I was more than willing to escape the small town where I’d grown up, to visit rather than be visited. We discovered a shared symbolism in the magnificent red kites, which were just beginning to respond positively to a new breeding program in the area. Dark hunter’s eyes. Hooked wings, and a V-shape heading west, into the sinking light.

Oh and there was pizza. I can’t walk past an open door of Papa John’s, without pausing to relish the memory of their Friday-feeling appeal (washed down with cider.)
Who knew that an anorexic could be encouraged, by love, to eat such things?

But those journeys home, on Sunday afternoons full of watery light … they were the pits. Balanced between crowds with my head down, on what was basically a Sunday skeleton service; it took twice as long to step back into the town I would suddenly hate for its distance from him, while still looking around with some relief that I was back, and on familiar ground.
Still, the distance was a new kind of pain. I’d never known real loneliness, before the realization of a person I could actually stand to be around for longer than 24 hours.

Drunk-dancing in the Norman King pub on his birthday, to Joy Division’s Love will Tear us Apart – that was the moment I realized we had gone over the casual-thingummy aspect, into something that would survive – despite the recession, the Dole, constant travelling; the instability of a relationship formed of 60% computer/phone screens, and an unreliable train service.

So I made the jump, in late October 2009; left home, to follow the kites and the bracket of nimbus/flooding sunlight, which would make up our shared time.

beacon rain

11) Emily Haines, Doctor Blind / The National, Bloodbuzz Ohio (2010)

Well, those hurtling-train days and Jack Daniel-nights couldn’t last forever. The honeymoon period was well and truly over by the time I was facing off with the weather, pulled on its conveyor-belt of air along the valley. Such storms! I’d never seen or felt the like, with hail ripping into my skin, purple shadows marking my every step, as I raced the flying nimbus home. The job I had planned to fall into, fell through instead; like J before me, I was now stuck on the Dole for the first time in my life, and let me tell you – that was an experience never to be forgotten, or repeated.

There’s only so many times one can be told to attend meetings – which, after an hour’s wait alongside dead-fish eyes and tight mouths similar to your own, last all of two minutes and yield only a stamp and wave-off – before nerves start to fray. Impatient, bored, in need of some consistency and not willing to sit around waiting on interview calls, I took to walking the length and breadth of J’s homeland, instead; learning every curve of a country lane, the nuance of hedgerows, the juxtaposition of light and darkness. The soft sweet swell of light on summer afternoons; the starkness of November nimbus, barrelling up over the Downs and chasing me back into the village where we lived.

And always, there were the dark eyes and hooked wings of the red kites, which would angle overhead and watch as I traipsed aimlessly here and there, seeking inspiration (for the writing had flatlined too, another sore point – I cannot concentrate on anything creative while life-issues stick pins in my eyes.) That raptor was my totem, symbolic of a wandering spirit, and a savage need to withstand the battering winds and endless variations of rain.

Those were lonely days, I must admit, for J had by chance fallen into employment – a lucky save, or I don’t know how things would have gone for us otherwise. As it was, cooped up together under his parent’s roof and with our future plans stalled out from lack of finances, we were running on a loop of the blues and the mean reds (to borrow a memorable line from Ms Golightly.) Times were tough enough; the recession had hit, along with the heaviest snowfall in decades; both had locked up the country, and seemed to put hope in exile. Every time I felt diminished, on the verge of collapse (in all senses), I had only to read the papers to feel – in that silvery manner of empathy – a pang of kinship with others, going through similar circumstances.

Living with your new love in close quarters, for around a year and with very little income, while dependant on the limitless generosity of his parents, is a very humbling experience. Take my word for it.
It’s also a hard lesson in discovering each other’s idiosyncrasies, adjusting and accepting wherever possible. How we came out of it still talking to each other, let alone in a stable relationship, is anyone’s guess.

winter sky

On one memorable occasion, striding home in the middle of a storm, I felt the wind actually bend the stem of my umbrella in my hands. My laugh tanged off my teeth; with a savage sideways thrust, I flung the damn thing into a hedge and carried on home, head high and still laughing, while soaked to the skin and exultant in being alive, if only to witness the sky turn black as my mind.
Sometimes, all you can do is grin in the screaming face of the gale.

Still. Melodramatics over, my luck changed in the next week. A forgotten job application back in early summer, and its subsequent interview; a blue-bolt phonecall in late September. The checks had gone through at last, and I was all clear to go. Did I still want the job?
Well.

12) Alex Turner, Piledriver Waltz / Cecile Corbel, Arrietty’s Song – from the Arrietty OST / Blonde Redhead, 23 / Mogwai, Too Raging to Cheers (2011-12)

The return of systematic hours and routines was a shock to my system, even after trying to keep up some semblance of control while on benefits. It’s always the way, after a spell of gluey time. Unemployment is striking in its restrictions, for all that there are masses of free time. Little money –> less options –> mental / physical apathy. Or so I found, anyway, which is why the return to work was a jumpstart to my spirits.

The best part was feeling needed again. Suddenly, there were demands on my time. Flinging myself around the building, head down and ever-watchful, silent, I soon learned how to approach the Family that is the Force – usually with coffee/tea in tow, since that seemed a damn good icebreaker, especially as they were trudging in and out of whatever vile weather happened to be hitting our isle in late 2010. Observing their grim humour, I felt at home. And after several months of suspicion – quite understandable, I suppose, all things considered, since I was the new kid in the building – I was duly inducted into that strange, bloodless bond which binds them all together. The odd hours, godless shifts, days when the entire building locks down in silence, or rings with laughter. The Nick is an old girl, now, and full of shifting dust in the air, echoes, and shadows of her former glory.

I’ve been there, in a civvy-staff role, for around 3.5 years now. Whether I’ll still be standing on the top floor to watch the sun rise by the end of this year, remains to be seen, for the world is changing and so am I. Circumstances, too, have had their say. Whatever happens, I don’t regret a moment of taking up this job. The Family have kept me alive, in more ways than one, and I can only hope to return the favour, as well as the caffeine-whiparounds.

blue lights

J and I had soon tired of the constant commute, back and forth, so moved to live in this new/ancient city. The air is notably heavy with the smell of the lakes, all black ‘n gold as whisky, while the water itself swirls with gypsy-scarf trails of oil and bird shit. In winter, silver snow rimes the grass of the park-slopes; chiming icicles hang from the tilting gutters of pubs (their interiors are dappled with open-fire smoke, while the walls are held together with split-wood beams strung up in leather and brass.)

Willow trees ring the water’s edge, to drip green-gold arrowheads and diamonds down and along looping branches, where in summer I can be found stretched out in the daffodil-soft air. I’ll dip fingers down to the rippling water, which so resembles that long-ago rivulet of the Clay Pits … I am 13 years old again, sitting with friends around a brick-potted campfire or nestled in the arms of that oak, with the lancing evening light turning the brown silt to gold.

Lake heart 1

Though the city is full of bling, flash cars with shit numberplates, and people whose ethos I will never understand – it is Home. A unicorn pays silent-sentry to the heart of our regal Lady, the city Cathedral. I give both a nod, in passing, each evening of a weekend walk.

It was on the foundations of these ancient stones, the oil-slick of modern faces, that I began to base my first novel (a short story, which grew legs and ran away with me.) The rain-slicked cobbles of the city centre, the winding green lanes of the outskirts where J and I had settled in our first little flat, proved ideal for inspiration – but it was the lamplight haven (a phrase I coined to describe the sanctuary of that orange-black time, when feral things come and go) which would hold the nest of words I needed.

Wandering here and there, under the pretty blue lights strung up in the city centre … traipsing up and down the many staircases at work, giving the creaking old walls of the Nick a loving pat … watching the leaf shadows drift to and fro by the wide-eye window of our flat, where gold evening light hung high in the trees … I felt content. For the first time in my life, I had a place to call my own, won out of waiting and work, desperate saving of money and hope, and love. J and I were as happy as any young couple could be.

Homeshots011

13) The National, Slipped / Sam Baker, Panhandle Winter / Peter Gabriel, Mercy Street / Fever Ray, Keep the streets Empty for Me (2013)

I’m in the crush, and I hate it – I’m having trouble inside my skin, I try to keep my skeletons in. – The National

All this is passing, is all that she said. – Sam Baker

And before we knew it, 2.5 years had passed, and I was that city girl the National spoke of; easy in my stride, and everyone’s friend/fuckup at work. 2013 ushered itself in like any other year, innocuous enough; an asteroid’s passage in February seemed the most momentous thing likely to happen, I remember thinking idly, while planning a holiday in London with J. We’d worked our butts off, and deserved a break. I also hoped it would reignite, well, whatever. You know how it is. Grey complacency filters in, quiet as the cobwebs hung in the rafters of a familiar pub-stop on a walk, or the drifting wings of a kite. We were – are – each other’s best friends, and confidantes. But lately, my gaze had begun to drift out the window.

Not that I was hankering for anyone else. The unhappy truth is far more complex than that, and is something I will never forgive myself for. As ever, the answer eludes me. We had everything. Our shared silences were comfortable; we could be as easy in each others’ company, as apart.

lamplight haven

Yet when the difficult times came – with a loss of job security, and our flat being pulled from beneath us by an unscrupulous landlord (not forgetting the ineptitude of several estate agents, all of whom let viewings of potential new homes fall through) – I couldn’t bring myself to comfort him. We were stunned into ourselves with the speed at which things fell apart. I looked outward for distraction – in writing, on Twitter – building new friendships which at first seemed formless and empty, as anyone would assume of something born of social media, a lack of proximity.

But in the second half of the year – when J and I were crammed between unfamiliar walls, our hearts thumping in time with the door-banging of a passive-aggressive housemate, while wondering how we would recoup our lost money and selling off much of what we treasured – it would be this eclectic group of friends scattered over the globe, who would keep me going. Though I regret the ever-increasing distance this put between J and I, oh, every day – but by then, I didn’t know how to comfort him. Didn’t know what to say, to make things right. Our silences, once so comfortable, became loud with unspoken truths; we tiptoed around each other, on the shards of all we had once had.

That online support-system has proved to be priceless, time and again. As I’ve long maintained, distance doesn’t count for shit when it’s a meeting of minds, if not eyes. Some of my best friends are on the other side of the planet, and though we’ll often miss each other due to pesky time zone differences, the beauty of this social media thing is that we can leave little reminders on each other’s timelines, just to say, “Hey. I’m thinking of you.”

15) Of Monsters and Men, King & Lionheart (2014) / Marissa Nadler, Dead City Emily / Katie Melua, Belfast (Penguins and Cats) (2014)

Which leads me here at last, dear reader, to the finale of this overlong post, and life as it stands. A lowered visor, a wire-twist smile; less of a strut, than the sideways dance of a feral cat waiting for the next kick. Lessons learned have been taken to heart, and I am quiet in some ways, loud in others.

Times are changing; the world is shifting. The two mainstays in my life, the dreams of childhood – writing and travel – now wind about each other to make a rope that would tug me out the door… I dream of the places I have been, in childhood, full of the mountains with their diamond teeth, the brittle sky, the dark and silent forests.

There is a need, though, to quieten this thing in my head. Oh, it’s governable – in that strategic way of a fairly systematic life. I am what you would call a “functioning anorexic”; unable to afford therapy, nor having any inclination to spend my wages dancing between towns, as doctors would have me do (local services not being all that local) to attend what would only dredge up more flashback memories.
Then a wave out the door, ‘See you in a fortnight!’
Ja.

Poor excuses, I know. Believe me, I know. I’ve been making them to myself for years.

So, as ever, education is the key distraction from a fear which would see me fail each time I push against my safe boundaries. I do this alone, you understand, because it has the most lasting effect; I certainly wouldn’t advise it for every anorexic. Therapists have come and gone, but only one left an impression – a motherly woman, with a dark-honey voice and who resembled the late Eva Cassidy. It was she who told me – aged 18, staccato and sullen, still unable to grasp the length of the road ahead and expecting (like some of my family) for this thing to vanish overnight – that I had a formidable mind.
‘It is, and will be your greatest asset, and your worst enemy. You know damn fine what needs to be done. But it’s about turning that drive around, from something self-destructive.’

Well, Sue. Here I am.
(I do owe her a drink.)

I read and absorb all that I can, in the desperate manner of someone playing Catch-Up. Slowly, like those chiming icicles falling away with the thaw, I let go of the old habits and routines, to wander through new experiences, while seeking whatever distractions I can. And the world has much to offer.

I still fetch myself out through the lamplight haven, to the beetle-black sound of Fever Ray, and the silver glint of Marissa Nadler (like trees in November); wandering the alleyways with their click-clack cobbles, my eyes are distant and alert at once. Watching shores far from here, and wishing to be There, with a spirit that is again crying for leaving.

I always was a meddler. Context, experience, have much to answer for; improved health has allowed me to absorb more information, bit by agonizing bit. Though the past decade may seem wasted, it has at least taught me some patience, and an unexpected capacity for love and empathy. Watching what goes on across the world, in places I know in memories and as dreams, it’s difficult not to care. I can’t turn my face away.

My friends and foes, it is proving difficult to get across what I want to say, now we’re here at the end. But it feels like the start. It’s all too near, still too raw. How best to describe the inertia of job insecurity, the lingering questions that go unanswered? The strange things that are happening, which accelerate and feel wonderful, and terrifying all at once? The best I can do is roll with it all, as the birds do on the ripples of the lake.

If employment runs out this year, as I suspect it will, I won’t be around to see those gates close for the last time. I will be gone, long before yet more ghosts can make their home behind my eyes. God knows, this city is already full of them, like my old home town.

Lake heart – deep and abiding, full of the green-black heaviness, the silence; eyrie heart, where I retreat to be alone, to write and watch the sky. Petrol rainbows in the gutter, my own brand of love; nice to look at, and bitter as the thorns of the blue rose I carry everywhere, everyday. A language of symbols.

eyrie heart

Pale lilac and silver are the colours of loss, found in my mind, when it’s not the white-out of a stunned silence. Beetle-black is the feral mood which so often sends me out into the night, done up on writing and rum, waiting for sleep to come. Waiting.
Though with spring comes the green-gold light of hope, and the almond-paste smell of the hawthorn blossoms again. The world wears cherry hearts on its sleeve.

I have never been in a better position to leave behind the last shreds of this old life. Though I hate to lump everything which happened last year onto Fate – for it denotes a lack of choice – it certainly did feel like the Universe had its boot up my arse. All the security, the ties, fell away or were taken from us. Now, there seems little left to stay for. I can bid the city a fond farewell, and leave without looking back.

We may yet come full circle, to Suzanne; to travelling blind, to taking chances I would not have had the guts to make before. We’ll see.

tree cathedral

pale sun

“I can still remember when your city smelled exciting…”

It’s a poor way of life for a 28 year old to be in bed when the neighbourhood kids are still out on their skateboards, wolf-whistling one another. But my job necessitates early starts, and it’s really no fun trying to drag myself around while my eyes try to glue themselves shut.

Because said job has me mingling with shift-workers, we sometimes find ourselves out and about mid-week. Under the gold sunlight hanging high in the trees, or the pretty blue fairy lights of Christmas, while the rest of the populace shuts down; jostling between pubs like kids to class.

The lesson learned is to keep a straight face, while whichever team is company for the night regales you with the kind of anecdotes to peel your skin.

I’m physically incapable of sustaining a hangover – the alcohol apparently seeps out of my pores, so it’s easy to progress with drink experimentation while my liver can still handle it. So, when invited to a night of cocktail pleasures in London, I throw three sheets to the wind and rattle-bang my way down the line on the cattle trucks, for a day of wandering and an evening at the Hawley Arms.

I get grit in my eyes, walking from St Pancras. Always find my reflection, dark eyes and hollow cheeks, in a hundred windows; nose turning red in that dashing wind churning up Euston road, mouth stagnating on sticky swallows of pollution. I develop an absent habit of brushing blackened fingertips down my coat (it’s worth remembering not to touch the escalators, unless you want dark crescent moons for nails.)

I fell for the Big Smoke after reading of its wiles ‘n beguiles as a 12 year old kid – the Medieval Town that Could. My first published piece was a poetic personification of that blue haze on the horizon, tempting the country man in on foot or pony ‘n trap. I know how they felt; always drawn back, but I could never live there, would never want it to become Home. All those familiar roads, bleeding into each other. That irresistible thrill, of entering the City on a Last Shadow Puppet’s bent, must be preserved.
I can still remember when your City smelled exciting …

But my eyes travel down, losing the gleam ‘n shine of windows for the rain on the pavement, the film noir of dark, pitted corners – chipped-teeth paint, broken doors, the tramps huddled under copies of the Metro, kindly given by commuters. Graffiti in the lowest and highest points; dreams abandoned like toys on the pavement.

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(the portal to one of my favourite Underground stations, Tottenham Court Road)

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(I love finding stonemason marks)

Wandering the Camden horse market, I sniff incense that’d loosen consumption, caress leather and shadowy brass, sunburnt copper. They’re real enough, with their burnished surfaces and smokey aromas. I’m always after more wrist cuffs, and have a very precise specification – must be water-resistant, flexible, non-dyed. It’s also a Platoon reference, but not many people recall Sgt Elias’ cuff.

Camden can sell you anything. Stuff to make you gawk and laugh – the bloodied Tom and beheaded Jerry – stuff of nostalgia for your country of origin, stuff of London-legend; so many flags, we might be at a regatta. All dished up on stall after stall, the traders hovering nearby with fencepost hair and stretch-leather pants:

‘Work here, you get to dress like this every day! Excellent!’ – direct quote from a Liverpudlian, overheard one afternoon while progressing (slowly) past a very cold looking Goth lass, stood before her stall with arms crossed as hard as the smile on her face, purple hair flying in that vicious wind. Might as well jump off the lock, love, the river’s warmer.

The smells alone could feed you for a week, on all manner of worldly cuisines. The folks that travel through with their open purses and faces, are at least hopeful. They’re distinct, and longing for the Real Deal. So long as you don’t mind sharing it with a half dozen others, no worries.

The Hawley Arms is one of London’s finest pubs, nestled down an innocuous side road of Camden. As renowned for its clientele as its padded leather chairs and wine bottle candle holders, this is the place for a spot of celeb-spotting; those great bug sunglasses worn indoors on the darkest of nights, are a dead giveaway. Unfortunately, this comes with the caveat of an extraordinary number of hipsters, rammed up against the bar and hoping to pap the ghost of Amy Winehouse. There’s scribbled poetry and homages on the toilet cubicle walls. Some fantastic stuff, lost in a haze of Biro and Tippex.

Joy Division, The Stone Roses, The Smiths and Paul Weller, all reverberating overhead and filling your glass. Morgan’s Spiced in hand (the Original Gold, no less, the sweetest dynamite you’ll ever taste – not the Green Triangles praline of its supermarket counterpart, but molten vanilla-gold), I’ll make my way back to the scarred leather chairs, where the team will have shuffled themselves like a deck of cards. One such evening found a guy eyeing me up from one of the buckled couches across the way; the fact he already had an arm looped about his oblivious chick, was made all the funnier by the orange squash of a market-bought beanie, stuck on his head. The label was still attached, a proud white flag high in the air. “Real deal, people!”

Your relationship clearly isn’t.

Some rather elaborate NES/SNES themed cocktails, inspired by a Mario-coin ping-ringtone:

‘Mario Gold-Coin Bonus.’
– 1oz Original Morgans’ Spiced rum
– 2oz pineapple juice
– 2oz peach schnapps
– Pinch cinnamon
– Stir well, plain serve.

“The Flying Princess”
– 2oz pink WKD
– 1oz Advocaat
– 2oz Lemonade. Stir, serve over ice. Pink / white umbrella.

“The Chun Li Flying Bird Kick”:
– 2oz white vodka
– 1oz Aftershock
– 2oz elderflower fizz
– Pinch cinnamon. Stir with ice-stick, no shaking. Serve with white orchid umbrella.

“Bob-Omb Shot”:
– 1oz Red Bull
– 2oz Johnny Walker Black
– 1oz tequila
– Pinch black pepper. Stir with liquorice stick, serve over ice (or liquorice blocks as preferred)

“Link’s Pipe”:
– 1oz green absinthe
– 2oz Zubrowka
– 2oz lemongrass juice / lemonade
– Stir with bison grass.

“Snow Kingdom Trial” AKA “The Slippery Slope” (this level of Super Mario Bros. 2 caused me years of pain as a child)
– 2oz Finlandia
– 2oz Baileys
– 1oz evaporated milk
– Stir over crushed ice until frothy. Sprinkle 100’s ‘n 1000’s.

“Chocolate World”:
– 2oz semi-skim milk
– 1oz Baileys
– 2oz Tia Maria
– Pinch cocoa powder / chilli powder. Stir with Twix bar finger.

“Koopaling Cup”:
– 2oz Red Bull
– 2oz Bacardi Oak
– 1oz lime cordial. Stir with blackjack stick.

“The Luigi Jump”:
– 2oz green absinthe
– 1oz tequila
– 1oz tonic / other spritzer
– 1oz lime cordial

“Donkey Kong Barrel o’ Fun”:
– 2oz banana beer
– 1oz Baileys
– 1oz Advocaat. Mix with candy cane, add scoop banana icecream.

“Roy’s Castle”:
– 2oz Red Bull
– 2oz Johnny Walker Red
– 1oz tomato juice
– Serve heated, cinnamon sprinkles to taste.

All recorded in a little crossword book. Measurements all approximate, of course; we were blattered.

It’s the city to take your life to, memories from, coloured up with other’s perceptions.
Unless you live there, of course; in which case, it’s Living the dream, every day.

I’m heading out there again soon. Come find me, if you’ve a mind to get toasted under the table, and Tippex’d into a heart on the back of a bathroom door.