Because we were teenagers

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It’s many years ago – sometime at the end of the 80’s – and I’m listening to that song. The one with the mournful synths, the one with the words seemingly plucked from deep inside me – the words I would share with you if only I could be sure you’d understand what they all mean. In my living room it’s a bit cold, we just welcomed autumn, a shiver runs down my back and the cat gives me one of his contemptuous looks for no reason at all. I start the record again, the needle trembles, settles, the record cracks a little, just like firewood in the old chimney – I sit back down on the floor, I could listen to this record a hundred times and more.

The phone rings, a strident siren, nobody in 2019 would ever be able to stand it but back then, as with all the other big, clunky, loud 80’s machines, we were used to it. It’s still ringing – I swear it could wake up the dead – I answer it because I have a feeling it’s you. Yes, it’s your voice, I was right – it’s a sign.

“Don’t speak for a bit, listen to this.”

The phone is plugged into the wall, I pull the cord as far as it will go, and hold the receiver next to the speaker.

“Are you there? Now, listen.”

It’s an order. it’s a prayer.

The shiver returns though I don’t feel the cold anymore, I’m nervously twisting the phone cord around my fingers – halfway through I stage whisper: “this bit coming up, you gotta love it.” I don’t know if you can hear me over the record player.

There – the song is over. I let the silence stretch for a number of seconds so I can pull myself together, I’m hoping you fell in love and need time to recover.

“Well?…”

An agonising beat

Wow…yes…wow.”

I hear hushed wonder, the tone is right, you got it – my gift wasn’t wasted.

The next day there is a kiss, and we’ve got many more phone calls ahead of us. But it was the music, the synths, the words – it was the record player that did the trick, that really started things.

Forget Spotify and the über modern hi-fis, forget instant sharing, forget digital and iPhones – none of it has ever been as intense – as real – as the old record player and the ugly clunky grey phone stuck to the wall.

And it wasn’t just because we were teenagers.

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One Saturday

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“It’s been a while since I was back on my old hunting grounds” says A, the reformed man-whore. “We’re staying up all night, right? Plus, Brexit isn’t happening so I’m fucking mad.”

“You’re not starting THAT” – this from S, Labour and Remainer through and through.

A wants to retort – I can tell – but he thinks better of it, thank fuck.
“Fine, I’m taking Nat to the bar.”

It’s Saturday crowded, ugh. Looks like we’re gonna be here a while.

“Let’s get shots, we’re gonna get him so wrecked he’ll admit Corbyn is a terrorist by the end of the night.”

We laugh and turn to look at S, he knows us too well, obviously caught the gist of it and he surreptitiously shows us the finger.

Back at the table with our drinks, in a dark corner of the pub, we resolutely avoid politics because we intend to stay friends, and alternate between other serious talk and general gossip. There are some very politically incorrect and tasteless jokes. Some reminiscing as well – it’s a typical boozy night between people who have known each other for years.

By 11 everybody is close to wasted.
“Right, clubbing!” says A like we’re on a mission, which I guess we are. He’s come down from London and will stay on a mate’s sofa – no way is he doing that just for a quiet evening.

It’s a short walk to the club, the streets are heaving though, the English are tough and walk around half naked even in the middle of winter. Some girls look like they couldn’t be bothered to get dressed and came out in their underwear – flesh on display always wins pitted against possible hypothermia. You can easily tell the foreigners apart as they all wear coats, hats, scarves, the lot.

Timing is everything – the DJ is starting the 80’s part of the evening when we walk in the club. None of the other 2 are as obsessed as I am but they get it – it won’t be a one-woman show on that dance floor.

An hour or 10 minutes later – who can tell, not me – we move on to the 90’s and I’m reminded once again no DJ is perfect because Alanis Morrisette (ugh!) is my cue to sneak outside to get some fresh air.

I walk straight up to a baby face who’s smoking. “Give us one?” My English is appalling when I’m drunk. He obliges happily. He lights it up for me and I take my first drag in fuck knows how long. Christ, it tastes like shite, how did I ever do this day in, day out? Instead of being clever and stubbing it out I persevere, like I’m punishing myself – it’s acrid, horrid and soon my head is swimming.

A appears as baby face is prattling on about something or other.

Shit. Busted.

“You didn’t!” He glares at me. Actually looks personally offended.

“Chill. I’m revisiting and it ain’t fun. I kind of feel sick actually.”

He doesn’t say another word, I’m dragged back inside – I barely have time to thank baby face again – disgust at catching me with a cigarette is all over A’s face.
Well, come on now. If I wasn’t so drunk, I’d say something, because this is a bit rich coming from someone who used to spend every weekend coked up to his eyeballs, but whatever – I’m letting it go.

Back in the club we’re assaulted by the heat of too many people packed in too small a place – another reminder of why I don’t like clubs – and alcohol fumes.

There’s more shots, more stupid jokes, more laughter and at some point
we reach the moment – that moment we came for – when there’s no more talk, no more drinking, just dancing, the whole planet could be in meltdown and none of it would matter because we’re caught in that euphoria, the moving to the beat and being alive. Only sex compares – nothing else does.

Late, I don’t know when, we leave and the cold hits me, immediately ramping up the feeling of intoxication.

“Where is my denim jacket… I’ve lost it. Guys, guys, wait, I LOVE that jacket – I’m not going home without.”

“I don’t remember you wearing it” says A, trying and failing to put on his own – he’s battling with it and looks ridiculous – the left shark in that Katy Perry video comes to mind.

“You’re so wrecked, what a fucking mess you are…hang on…WAIT. That’s mine, you lunatic!”

I snatch it from him and sure enough it’s my size 8 ladies denim jacket.

“Did you even come out with a jacket?!” I ask him, tempted to slap him into shape.

None of us remember, least of all him. This mystery won’t be elucidated tonight. I’ve had enough, I want my bed and I get into a taxi. A gets in with me.

“What are you doing? You’re going in the opposite direction! Get out ffs.”

I pause. Remember this is my good friend. “Are you gonna be okay?”

“Oh yeah. And yeah.”

He hugs me fiercely and finally gets out only to reappear at the window to tell the driver:
“Look out for her, she’s very special.”

I am quite sure I roll my eyes.

“Sweet. But I’m not 16! Go, go, go!”

I apologise to the taxi driver who no doubt deals with stuff like that all the time. I’m not sure I’d have the patience myself.

“It’s fine.” He says. “Good night?”

“Amazing” I reply.

In the morning I get a text from A:

“I’m dying, I’m so fucking glad I’m not working tomorrow. Top night though.”

I type a response quickly:

“I feel like an ice pick is lodged in my forehead but yeah – great night!”

Best of all, nobody even came close to guessing my heart was breaking.

Billy Idol – Brixton Academy

Best gig I’ve been to in AGES. Billy Idol keeps on ruling. Needless to say, I adore this review. Nothing to add – it’s perfect.

Idle blogs of an idle fellow

Last night a little angel came pumping on the floor
She said, come on baby, I got a license for love – Rebel Yell

It’s unclear what Sir Billiam Of Idol made of his Smash Hits magazine nickname, but it was always a sign of respect. The Bromley boy is back on his home turf; although it’s unlikely he brought his shamelessly self-promoting Billy Idol tour T-shirt at the Glades shopping centre. He’s in Brixton for a sold out intimate gig and it’s clear he’s making no apologies for the sort of cock-rock orgy that would bring Radiohead out in hives. It’s so uncool that it’s immediately cool, as he belts out Shock to the System with the enthusiasm of a groom on a Billy Idol karaoke machine. He looks like he was always going to look; like a rock star that’s offset good times with yoga retreats and good…

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Smalltown Boy

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“Smalltown Boy” is my favourite 1984 song. The year before that it was “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood but they (and that song) deserve a post all of their own…so, Smalltown Boy: the haunting voice and lyrics spoke directly to me.
My English teacher who was very fond of me because of my ability for the language and my love of all things British told me the song was about the pain and struggle for acceptance of a Scottish gay boy. I may have been a precocious child in many ways due to my love of books, but I knew very little about the gay community or even about what being gay actually meant. There were no “gays” in my village or if there were, they were in hiding. Gay rights would have been an alien concept in this rural area. My teacher and I looked up Glasgow together which is where the singer Jimmy Sommerville came (and had escaped) from. It looked desolate to my eyes and very different from my sleepy Burgundian village. And yet…

I guess it was the first time I properly understood the fact pain was a universal concept whatever the reasons behind it. When I heard the words “the love that you need will never be found at home“, I identified completely and felt that the gay boy from Glasgow and I were the same, united in this yearning for something and somewhere else. He suffered in a big city and I among the fields of wheat. We “never cried to them but to our soul.” By the time the song was released, he had already left with “everything he owned in a little black case” and so would I years later, but in 1984 it gave me hope to know he had escaped, to realise you didn’t have to put up with misery, that it would get better, that there was a place somewhere where acceptance was possible. Funny that it turned out London was Jimmy Sommerville’s destination when he ran away, because that’s where I ended up too. 

Years after I had left, there was a big scandal in my village because my English teacher who had been so pleased to teach me about Britain was caught in a compromising position with a male student. It turned out he was gay, no wonder he had known so much about the gay community. Of course, I had not suspected anything at all, as I said I was precocious in some ways but still very naive in others. To this day, I cannot listen to Smalltown Boy without being transported right back to that time, it’s a song that I still love and it still means so much to me – it made me feel understood and infused me with hope. 

*This is an extract from a personal essay I wrote last year. I am going to an 80’s night on Saturday and the shameless selfie is the outfit I selected this afternoon for the occasion. Sadly, I do not own a smalltown boy t-shirt so I decided to go with ‘Frankie says’ out of my 80’s t-shirt collection – yes, I have one, I still love 80’s music. And always will.*

Stranger Things

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I’ve been really excited about Stranger Things coming back, an excitement tinged with apprehension because I LOVED the first season and there is always a (very high) risk “they” won’t get it right the second time round.

Since I’m not watching this alone, I wasn’t allowed to binge watch which is probably a good thing. Two episodes was the limit set by my viewing companion last night and he wasn’t going to be swayed. Ok then, I guess I do need someone to rein me in at times.

So, what was it like being immersed in Hawkins again? So freaking good. I was an 80’s kid and this show is the ultimate gift for me: I would happily watch it just for the soundtrack, movie references, bad hairstyles, awful fashion choices and the video games – a mere mention of Atari and I’m quivering, instantly transported back to a time when gaming was new, crude but so much effing fun.

But of course, Stranger Things is so much more than 80’s nostalgia – I’m not going to spoil anything for anyone, let’s just say that I was hooked all over again with episode 1 which felt somewhat like being plunged in one of the early Stephen King stories.

The cast is as good as ever, I bloody love those kids and Dustin is still my favourite: I have shamelessly asked countless people why they were “keeping the curiosity door locked” in the last few months, which is a good way of separating the wheat from the chaff actually. Either people give you a blank look or they just high 5 you without even bothering with any other response and you know you’ve found one of your tribe. Incidentally I have been told that high fiving after the age of 30 is despicable and it probably is, but do I give a fuck? Hell no.

Can I also say that Sheriff Hopper is my favourite Sheriff in the history of both sheriffs and TV (followed closely by Sheriff Romero in Bates Motel) and if he doesn’t get with Joyce at some point, it’s going to be tragic. Yes, I know she is dating Bob right now but there’s no way that’s going to last because it’s just a ridiculous pairing.

I’m also curious as to what’s going to happen with the Nancy/Steve/Jonathan love triangle – I usually have strong opinions in such cases, but not this time as I have equal sympathy for Steve and Jonathan.

We’re getting to know Will who was mainly absent – for obvious reasons – from the first season and we have some interesting additions to the cast in the form of Max and Billy. Well, Max particularly I want to see more of, Billy I’m still ambivalent about.

And of course (of course) there is Eleven, our mysterious flawed gem, who is so far isolated from the other kids, a state of affair that can’t go on for long or I’m going to be very disappointed indeed.

So, I’ve done this: wrote about Stranger Things without mentioning the plot – I cannot be accused of spoiling anything for anyone this time. But I needed to write about it as the viewing companion was unwilling to keep discussing the lone 2 episodes we’ve seen so far. In fact, his actual words were: “enough, Nat, it is JUST a TV show, go and tell people on your blog about it if you must.”
I told him he was a philistine and (in a fit of exaggeration) the worst viewing companion ever – and then wrote this.

Seriously though, if you haven’t given Stranger Things a go yet, please do so. Even if you’re indifferent to the whole 80’s vibe, it is well worth watching.

Why?

He was just unlucky, he says, as he aligns his pills neatly on the table, each in the exact order it has to be taken. His face wears deep lines, his eyes are dull, his skin is that sickly off-white hue, his body is somehow reduced, shrunken – a man old before his time. And he is not even bitter.

“Nobody knew” he mumbles. “How could we have known?”

How indeed? Who could have guessed sex had turned into a game of Russian roulette?

On second thought, he thinks he was fortunate, actually, considering. He’s been ill on and off for 20 years, his body is ravaged by the more or less constant battles, but he is, after all, still alive when so many others aren’t. He attended countless funerals in his late 20’s, until he stopped going to them because he feared he had become desensitised.

We are talking via FaceTime and there’s no way I want him to see the tears in my eyes, so I force a smile and tell him that huge framed Madonna poster on the wall behind him is freaking me out.

He laughs, and orders me in that mock angry voice not to diss the queen.

I start singing “Like A Prayer”. He carries on, and we both can’t sing for shit but we slowly get into it, we know all the words of course, and go through the entire song, hand clapping and all, and by the end I think a little bit of colour has appeared on his sunken cheeks.

“80’s pop really was the best, wasn’t it?” He grins.

“Well, duh.”

We both laugh for no actual reason, and just like that, we are transported back to a time when we used to sing enthusiastically and dance crazily and laugh hysterically, a time when the future was still waiting, full of promises, a future that was uncertain, though if we were sure of one thing, it was this: we would always be friends.

And in this at least, we were right.

*Songs chosen because both he and I loved them then and still do. I’ve sweated buckets dancing to “Why?” over the years, it’s a fantastic song and it was just so incredibly relevant. As for “Smalltown Boy”, the 12 inch version is one of my favourite songs ever – it makes my top 10 list, easy.*

80’s playlist

He walks around the room getting ready, picking up his watch, strapping it on with efficient movements. I am lying on the bed flat on my stomach and it is quite something to watch him move, so sure of everything—of his place in the world-when all I do is constantly wonder.

“I’m sorry I have to go, you’ll have to make your own way out.”

“Are you comfortable leaving a woman loose in your mansion?”

He laughs. A lovely unencumbered sound. There really is no doubt in his mind.

This complete trust I don’t deserve makes me bury my face in the pillow. I close my eyes and think I’m not real…nothing is, and the sky will swallow me at some point and I will just cease being and wouldn’t that be wonderful, and peaceful?

I feel his lips pressing on the hollow of my back and he sighs.

“You’re mine” he whispers against my skin.

I bristle at that, though I don’t show it. Those are the words of the vampire. They immediately transport me back to a time when I was fading, when everything about me was being annihilated.

His tone is different and he is nothing like that bloodsucker, but there is a tight feeling in my chest all the same. Pure knowledge does not eradicate raw feelings.

He carries on, oblivious to my inner turmoil.

“Why don’t you stay? Instead of coming home to an empty house, there you’d be filling it with everything that’s missing.”

I don’t bother replying, we’ve had this conversation before. I won’t do anything that resembles commitment and so far he’s tiptoed around the issue, but how long till he gets bored?

And while we’re at it…how long till I stop using the past as an excuse? Do I purposefully wreck anything good in my life because that’s just who I am? Some kind of fraud, ultimately unloveable.

He rescues my face from the pillow and kisses me deeply and tenderly, and sweetly. This act dispels the clouds but the fog is waiting just behind the door, patiently. It knows there will be an opening shortly, there always is.

I watch the effort he makes to pull himself together and leave me—there is real regret etched on his face. Why does he put up with me? It’s a mystery.

He simultaneously makes me feel happy and sad and nostalgic—for something I couldn’t articulate even if my life depended on it—like an 80’s playlist.