Summer Buddy Holly (6)

“What would you have been?” Blue asks. “If you could have been anything.”

“You make it sound like I’m not ‘anything’ now.”

“No, silly.” She strokes his arm, reassuringly tactile. “I just mean, well, you don’t seem particularly fulfilled. Professionally, I mean.” 

“You have a point.”

“So?”

“A historian,” he says. Then: “An historian.” Uncertain as to the problematic and fleeting n.

“That surprises me,” she says. “Although you do always love all that old stuff, I suppose.”

“Why does it surprise you?”

“I don’t know, I’d have just thought that with the choice of anything you’d have said a rock star, or something.”

“Maybe when I was ten years old. By the time I was old enough to think about careers and the like, I still had too much of that ten year old boy in me. I looked to the arts, theatre, music, and everyone dissuaded me.” 

“Were you easily dissuaded?”

“Too easily. It’s why I’m not an historian.”

“Oh?”

“O levels,” he says, playing on her exclamatory questioning. “Or rather, A levels. I did worse than everyone expected in my O levels, But this was later. I hated my school. It was pretentious and cared more about its standing than it did about its pupils. Anyway, the only things I was any good at, and enjoyed, I suppose, were English, History and Geography. And I wanted to do all three of them, for A level. Only everyone kept saying ‘Ooh, too many essays, too many essays,’ and they made it sound like it was impossible to do this combination, do you see?”

“Uh-huh.”

“English was a given. I barely needed to turn up to get at least a B. So Geography or History Well, of course it was going to be History, but by the time I told the school they said the History intake was full and I’d have to do Geography.” 

“That’s a bit crap. Didn’t you argue.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I wasn’t the argumentative type back then.”

“Good lord, Jay, I can hardly believe this is the same person!”

“No. Neither can I.”

A Queen Confessional

I have a complicated relationship with the band Queen. Partially, and let’s be upfront about this, because there was a time in my adolescence when they could do no wrong, when everything about them spoke to me the way that God spoke to William Blake, and then they turned into a version of themselves that, musically, I was less keen on and the natural course should have been that I just shrugged and said, “Used to like them, don’t now,” the way I did later with, say, Dire Straits (when they moved away from their eponymous first album grit and into their MTV period), but this sloughing off of old adorations proved a step too far. 

This has all come to mind having watched the movie Bohemian Rhapsody over the weekend, something I’d previously avoided but now found both ridiculous yet entertaining. There was enough in it to take me to a place where the door, if not bolted from the inside, was certainly locked, although I was also self-appointed keeper of the key.

As a child, not yet a teenager, I was obsessed by the song Seven Seas of Rhye. Something about the slabs of guitar laid over the melodic tinkling of the piano; more likely, the song’s ending, when, following the bombastic crashing rock and the comic book lyrics, the song fades into a raucous chorus of I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside. This infiltration of music hall pastiche has always appealed; the Beatles did similar things, and Ian Dury had a direct line into Max Miller and Marie Lloyd. There’s a notion here about nothing existing in isolation, that all music, all art, exists on a plain of the before, and the occasional nod to that sentiment evokes all manner of old family stuff and a cultural nostalgia for times I wasn’t born in.

Anyway. Whatever it was, I badgered my mother to buy me the album Queen for my upcoming birthday, having seen this particular song among the track listings. It duly arrived, in cassette form (I was also given a cassette player) and I listened to all the songs in order, all those old songs the band had first done in their earlier incarnation as Smile, knowing that the great ‘Seven Seas’ awaited me as the final track. Only for it to begin and almost as quickly fade away, providing merely a taster of my anthem that lasted barely more than a minute, the true enormity of the piece being saved for the next album, Queen II.

Somehow, though, it didn’t matter. I was a Queen fan now.

At my loathed grammar school, I met a young man, also called Andrew, who was in the year above me. Andrew two, too, was a Queen fan. He had all the albums on vinyl, and he had a record player in his room at home. Many a post-school late afternoon-early evening was spent in his room playing their majesties’ music and reading sleeve notes, learning lyrics, for some reason relishing the little footnote that appeared on the back of the albums that read ‘no synthesisers.’

And then came the album The Game. The cover image featured haircuts. Even Brian may have had a trim. The opening track had an alarming noise at the beginning that could have indeed been a synthesiser. But it settled into familiar territory, piano, Brian’s authoritative, runaway guitar; all was okay. Departure came in the form of two songs, Dragon Attack and Another One Bites the Dust. “They’re doing … disco,” Andrew two mumbled. But we stuck it out, side one, side two, then side one again, eventually conceding that there was enough here that we could love, that they were trying new things and that was alright, we could still worship at the altar. Except for a song on side two called Don’t Try Suicide. That was just a fucking awful song that no amount of sparse, crisp May guitar could save. 

That year a tour was announced, and we got tickets. Wembley Arena, just before Christmas. I was 16 and it was going to be my first gig. I have just found a recording of that night, on YouTube. It’s not the finest quality, and yet it answers a lot of questions for me. Press play and there is cheering, whistling, clapping, a burgeoning chant of “We want Queen,” before a guitar-sound rumble and an eruption of applause, more rock noises, a suspense that is maintained for almost three full minutes, before two familiar yet unfamiliar in this context chords are struck repetitively, Freddie Mercury sings, “Warden threw a party at the county jail,” and Queen swing and boogie their way through an outrageous rendition of Jailhouse Rock. I’m a teenager again, I can remember that first time. We were on that plain of the before, this was not a band given over to disco, this was a loud rock and roll band with all the swagger and bravado we associated with them and they had me forever.

That same day, the soundtrack album Flash Gordon was released. Andrew two and I went to see the film three times at the local cinema. Of course we did. If ever a band was destined to make a success out of a concept album that doubled as the soundtrack to a movie that had all the implausibility of a cartoon with the aesthetic sensibilities of a mid-70s porno parody, it was Queen. We were in on the joke and we loved it.

Later came the album Hot Space, and it remains one I can’t find it in myself to forgive. Unlike Flash, this felt like a joke we weren’t privy to. And when Under Pressure, the duet with Bowie, reached number one, for us it felt like the game was up. Here was a change too far, a departure, an infidelity that was going to be hard to forgive. Successive albums—The WorksA Kind of MagicThe Miracle—mined commercial seams and did so effortlessly and hugely successfully. But it was like watching a former wild-child love marry the management consultant. Sure, she’d never want for a sun-kissed beach to holiday on, but was she happy?

Somewhere deep inside, however, I knew that enough collateral had been amassed that there would come a day when we could forgive and forget, when the good times would outweigh the bad. Watching that film said maybe now is the day. Finding that very first concert on YouTube confirmed it. Gosh. And for the record. I’m still a Queen fan.

Summer Buddy Holly (5)

“What is it about stars?” he asks Saint Justa. “Why do you and your sister have those inscriptions about stars? What does it mean?” he says, and soon he realises that he is a man trying to have a conversation with a wall. A wall that very obstinately and definitely is refusing to engage in any (further) dialogue. He shuffles the two metres back to Saint Rufina and manages, “Perhaps you could—” before allowing himself a smile and giving up on any further exchange. “I must be fucking mad,” he whispers to himself. Even so, he removes his sunglasses and tucks them loosely into the pocket of his shirt, clasps his hands together as if in prayer and mouths, “Thank you,” to Rufina and Justa in turn. 

He arrives back at the hotel, a melted popsicle of a man, to find Blue sitting out by the pool. His short walk has been undertaken on autopilot; he has no knowledge of the streets he has just walked and if asked to describe the route he has taken since gazing up at Saints Rufina and Justa he would struggle. Blue is wearing a one piece turquoise swimming costume and a wide-brimmed straw hat. Her golden skin glistens as if mirror-glazed. She sees him approach and peers at him over the top of over-large Prada sunglasses. 

“Hello, you,” she says. “Where did you get to?”

“Just a walk,” he says. “I thought you were going back to bed. After breakfast.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You did yesterday.”

“Yesterday I was tired, darling. Today I am not. Anyway, surely it’s too hot to be wandering about. Especially in those clothes. I mean, jeans, I ask you.”

“Yes, well. You know how I feel—”

“About men in shorts, yes, yes. It’s just because you’ve never had a decent pair, at least not since the eighties. I bet you dressed like George Michael in the eighties. Sports shorts. Maybe a lemon-coloured jacket with the sleeves rolled up.” She giggles, girlishly, adds, “Budgie smugglers.”

“I might have worn an espadrille,” he says, trying to join in the self-deprecating joke and feeling a slight unease. “And anyway, how did you know that I had a yellow jacket?”

“You’re the type,” she says.

Her name isn’t really Blue. Her name is Daisy. Or at least, her first given name is Daisy. Her full name is Lady Daisy Constance Genevieve Bonham Carter. She is known in some circles, including the lower reaches of the tabloid press, as Lady Daisy; to her friends within the arts community she is Daisy Carter, which, she feels, affords her a certain degree of East London street credibility which in itself opens doors that would, perhaps, remain closed to Lady Daisy, a name which in turn opens doors that would ordinarily remain firmly shut to Daisy Carter. The best of both worlds. Poly-nominal, Blue says, I am poly-nominal. It was on their second date that she revealed to Jay, over espresso martinis and following an encounter with the finest cheeseboard he had ever laid eyes on, that she was distantly, although undeniably, related to the Royal family. “In a ‘the King’s second cousin is my aunt’ kind of a way,” she had said. “Goodness,” Jay had replied. “Blue blooded.” 

Up until that moment, he had known her as Daisy Carter and it was now that she chose (now that she felt she could trust this eager as a spaniel, older, still-seemingly-aspirational man, with his emotional sensibilities and his evident adaptability) to reveal to him the full extent of her given name. “That’s lovely,” he had said. “If something of a mouthful. I shall call you Blue.” And she had allowed her cool hand to rest on his across the table, and she had smiled at him in a way that appeared both shy and bold and she had said, “I’ll be your Blue.”

Summer Buddy Holly (4)

A week before coming to Seville, Jay was talking with a friend, online, and she told him how her day had been bound in grief. Not the ravenous kind, the way it can consume you whole, like a fictional whale, even a galactic one, but a deep melancholy, a wounding sadness. His friend had a friend whose dog had died that day, aged four. The dog was the brother of her own dogs. Jay replied with vicarious condolences. “Life could be so fragile,” he said, “in all its forms.” His friend agreed. “Shockingly so,” she said, and they then found themselves discussing the notion of why death, ubiquitous death, should indeed be shocking. He told his friend about his dear friend, Richard, whose father had died, peacefully in his sleep a few days earlier, and how he was being incredibly accepting and stoic. His friend gave her own displaced condolences and said that was such a powerful response. “There’s so much here to unpack,” she said.

Summer Buddy Holly (3)

“It’s all about death,” he says quietly, to nobody in particular. 

“Perhaps,” says Saint Rufina, for it is she, wrapped in a robe of vermillion, who is contained within the fresco, she who is offering up her floral tribute. “Although—

when you stop and think about it,” she says, “isn’t everything about death? The flowers in the green glass vase that you bought on that vacación in Sitges in, when was it, Jay, 2005? their edges crisping, the heads bowed as if in prayer, standing among an eiderdown nest of themselves on the table. The latest box-set, the detective and the forensics team revelling in the nature of a grisly murder and passing itself off as entertainment. Isn’t everything about death? When you take the flowers to la cucina to eventually dispose of them, don’t their remaining petals strew themselves across the floor into a self-constructed cortège? They lay there, curled and benign, and you sweep up them up and then they are gone. Why, Jay,” she says, “just ask my sister.”

She inclines her head and gestures a little way along the wall, which belongs to one of the many ancient churches that punctuate Seville’s winding streets like asterisks, solid reminders that absolution is always close at hand. Saint Justa, swathed in a robe akin to that of Saint Rufina but in gold rather than red and offering a similar bouquet and, colours aside, identical to her sibling, smiles down at him from a matching fresco. There is that flash of recognition once more before it crawls away.

“Hola, Jay,” she says, her voice not unlike that of Penélope Cruz (although Jay is inclined to hear Penélope Cruz in the accents of many Spanish women), “of course, I agree with my sister. It is all about death.”

Jay slides one uncertain Birkenstock-sandaled foot to the right of the other like a man on a highwire and edges two metres to his right. Saint Justa is, like her saintly sister, surrounded by a script that seems to flow like a stream, offering itself in Spanish interspersed with ribbons of languages past. This time he relaxes into the tickertape scroll, letting his eyes adjust and settle. And presently he reads I loved you like a distant star.

Summer Buddy Holly (2)

There is, after all, so much to unpack.

(High, so high that it ceases to be called anything so mundane as sky, there is NGC 4631, otherwise known as the Whale Galaxy. The Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep within NGC 4631. It is 30 million light years away from us. Give or take a few thousand light years. We see it side-on. An exciting, daring glimpse of side-whale. Within the whale, stars are born. Their lights illuminate the galactic centre. Strata of dark material hang between us and the starburst. Through Hubble we can see that the galaxy has a central bulge and an asymmetric tapering disc, providing the appearance of a whale. There are fewer stars and less dust in its outer reaches, although these are still punctuated by star formation. The centre of the Whale Galaxy witnesses exploding stars. Supernovae, eight times the mass of our sun, bathing the galaxy in hot gas. Blue starlight making celestial ka-booms, painting the whale, which feeds on intergalactic material, stars coalescing to create the greater density within its vast belly. Just as blue whales gorge on plankton, so the Whale Galaxy snacks on dust and gas that powers a high rate of star formation. An undercurrent of gleaming silver, a base of orange and blue. They are there yet we cannot see. Paint particles at the outer edge of application, a dust of pigment, chlorofluorocarbons and light. Let the whales feast. You loved me like a distant star.)

Summer Buddy Holly (1)

As James Edward Henry—known universally as Jay—stands before the fresco in that street in Seville, his face lifted to the sun, his neck arched and tight-pink where the suncream did not stretch during yesterday’s snooze on the terrace, he explodes. 

(For the purposes of the tape, it is worth noting here that the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides three definitions of the word ‘explosion.’ The first two, concerned with the act of exploding and a large scale, spectacular expansion, are too obvious and lacking in any real merit to be noteworthy. No, what Jay experiences is the third definition: the release of occluded breath that occurs in one kind of articulation of stop consonants. An altogether more interesting proposition.)

At the beginning was the first.

Out of the black and into the soup.

The day is too warm to be described as merely warm. Hot would barely do it justice. Seville, even this late in the summer, is nudging the mid-thirties and we are barely an hour after breakfast (coffee and orange juice, pastries and some slices of an unknown, yellowish cheese for him, camomile tea and a peach for Blue, of whom more later). 

Order from chaos, a taper lit by a wish that the universe might know itself. Playing the long game. Everything that follows simply followed. Star-made horses stampeding.

Jay squints up at the wall, yellow and orange and blue and green climbing in through the polarised lenses of his tortoiseshell sunglasses (Steve McQueen 714s, by Persol), colours dripping from a deity’s easel, made liquid by the sunshine and coating his eyes. The street is bisected by shadow, one side under-exposed and in hiding, awaiting its big ta-da as tourists seek sundowners on its tabled sidewalk later; the other side, his side, the mad dogs and Englishmen side, is brighter than bonfires. On the wall a saint, faded and ephemeral, glorifying God with a basket of roses or maybe they are calibrachoa, or bidens, more suited to the heat, this heat. She reminds him of someone, a memory in the back of his mind, so far back he is not able to fully recall it. The River Guadalquivir crawls inside his thin, white cotton shirt, carving its way to the waistband of the blue Diesel jeans that he now knows were a mistake, his coyness about men in shorts uncomfortably misplaced. 

He tries to make out the writing contained within the tiled patterns bordering the saint. Words swim, in Spanish, in Latin, in Arabic. Eventually he reads You loved me like a distant star. And he knows that he has read that before. Somewhere, he has read that before. In a book, no, somewhere else. You loved me like a distant star, he reads. And he thinks, says out loud, “Maybe I did,” and then he explodes.

A Thing Laid Bare

I tweeted a few days ago about writing a book ‘live’ as a blog. It seemed like an adventurous, possibly bold thing to attempt. And yet here we are. If I write it down it must be so.

I have a work in progress that is barely a thing. In my head, it’s a memoir told through fiction with dashes of non-fiction and smatterings of whatever it darn well chooses to be. A hybrid thing. I am only 3,000 words into it and much of it resides in my head. It’s also my ‘secondary’ writing project, as I have a novel (the fourth I will have written), Naked Magic, began in 2018 and which stands at over 60,000 words and is in its umpteenth draft on its way to being a full first draft. And that novel is one I shall complete this year (I also said this on a similar date—i.e. early January—last year. I have the notebooks to prove it).

Anyway. This other thing: I shall attempt to post it here as bits of it become written. Of course it will be spasmodic, unkempt, irregular, with the possibility of huge gaps between posts while I work on Naked Magic, and also publish the chapbooks and potential other things that we are committed to over at Seventy2One. But if you’re interested in reading it, in keeping up with its stuttering progress, then here is the place.

The opening salvo will be published here before the end of this week. Feel free to comment on it, just as I will feel free to graciously accept any praise and completely ignore any opprobrium. In the meantime, happy 2022. Stay healthy. Get jabbed. Love your neighbours. See you here before the weekend.

SEVENTY2ONE

NEWS: I’m starting an imprint. Or rather, have started an imprint. Along with my friend and fellow author Hannah Persaud (who is brilliant, read her novel The Codes of Love if you haven’t already), we will be bringing out brand new works of fiction, in print, starting with a collection of climate emergency-themed short stories in time for Christmas.

Short is the word. Because Seventy2One is so called as we won’t publish anything longer than seventy thousand words (about 250-ish pages); but the One is since we’d prefer if all stories were at least one thousand words long. We want books you can carry with you, slip into your pocket or bag and not feel like you’re carting a house brick around with you.

We’re concentrating on literary fiction, mainly concerned with the major issues of the times we live in; so right now that’s climate change, the environment and other social issues. We want to discover new writers as well as offering a route to print for a few people who are known to us and who deserve to have their words in bookshops.

Seventy2One will come under the umbrella that Alec Bowman_Clarke and started last year when we made our short (that word again) film, Overheads. Massive Overheads Productions has morphed into a groovy little arts co-operative and Seventy2One is its publishing arm.

The intention, following this year’s anthology, will be for two novels next year, along with a series of chapbooks, single or double story publications that will come out in limited numbers and sell for less than the price of a Caffè Nero Hot Chocolate Milano (currently £3.20). Beyond 2022, well, let’s see how things go. But two novels a year, plus the chapbooks, feels about right.

So, Seventy2One. Small volumes. Loud voices.

Sgt. Pepperoni

I love the Beatles. I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of music made post, say, 1967 wouldn’t have happened had The Beatles not happened. They wrote the rule book. It’s the one thing I disagree with Scroobius Pip about.

Anyway. Last week was the 44th anniversary of the Sgt. Pepper album. You know the one, with the iconic cover designed by Peter Blake that features the Beatles’ heroes, icons, contemporaries and historical enigmas. There are 55 people on that cover, plus three that are obscured, according to Craig Brown’s excellent book, One Two Three Four. And I got to wondering who my 55 might be. Wonder no more:

Paul McCartney, musician

John Lennon, musician

George Harrison, musician

Ringo Starr, musician

Sir David Attenborough, naturalist and broadcaster

Mr Badger, character, Wind in the Willows

Ronnie Barker (as Fletcher), writer and actor

Dame Mary Beard, classicist, broadcaster, writer

George Best, footballer

Charles Booth, social reformer

Sir Frank Bowling, artist

Gordon Burn, writer

Kate Bush, musician

Nick Cave, musician

Sir Billy Connolly, comedian and presenter

Molly Cooney, doctor

Ian Dury, musician and writer

James Ellroy, writer

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, actor

Guy Garvey, musician

Antony Gormley, artist

Barbara Hepworth, artist

Gil Scott Heron, musician

Ian Hislop, writer and broadcaster

Hans Holbein the younger, artist

Albert Irvin, artist

Brian Johnston, cricket commentator

Sir Tom Jones, singer

Kauto Star, racehorse

Nicole Kidman, actor

Naomi Klein, writer and activist

James Lovelock, scientist and writer

Hilary Mantel, writer

Helen McCrory, actor

Rocío Molina, dancer

Grayson Perry, artist

Pablo Picasso, artist

Empty Plinth, space for the as yet undecided

Kojey Radical, musician

George Robinson, 1st marquess of Ripon

Don Rogers, footballer

Joseph Rowntree, social reformer

Arundhati Roy, writer and activist

Alexei Sayle, writer and comedian

Michael Sheen, actor

Barry Sheene, motorcycle racer

Timothy Spall, actor

Bruce Springsteen, musician

Dylan Thomas, poet

JMW Turner, artist

Bernhard Vogel, artist

Mary Wesley, writer

Tim Winton, writer

PG Wodehouse, writer

Victoria Wood, writer, musician, actor