Category Archives: Regret

Stay Young

primroses web

I’ve been having a mid-life crisis for about six years. Ever since I turned thirty and realised that the trail of loose ends and missed opportunities and messed-up relationships and recreational brain-damaging was irrevocable. I wasn’t in the foothills of life, getting acclimatised, finding my feet, which is what I’d thought. This was life. And I’d blown it.

There was a craze among some of my friends for getting married and having children. It was genuinely shocking. They had careers and mortgages. I still hadn’t decided what I was going to be when I grew up.

I worked on a building site for six months and bought a second-hand Citroen Berlingo. I put a bed in it and a cooker and headed for the Outer Hebrides. My brakes failed crossing the Cairngorms. I survived. I carried on.

My baby sister had a baby.

I flew to Panama and slept on the beach with the crabs because I couldn’t afford a hostel, let alone a hotel. I came back and moved Earth with a spade to pay off my credit card. I realised I’d been doing my temporary gardening job for ten years. Ten years.

Friends got ill. Friends died. Friends younger than me died.

I got older every day. Every day life got more mysterious. If there was a plot I’d lost it. My primary school God wasn’t making any sense.

Anne of Green Gables, Jilly Cooper and all films starring Julia Roberts, road maps for my subconscious expectations, morphed into Zen koans. Icelandic productions with names like Of Horses and Men, where people slit ponies open and sleep in their stomachs, became strangely comforting.

I’d been merrily climbing the hill of existence, waiting for my happy ending, waiting to peak, and now, suddenly, I was over the hill. And the view from the top was not triumphant. It was terrifying. I’d been sustained by the illusion that one day the mysterious mess of life would tidy itself up into a neat story like, well, Anne of Green Gables, and I’d go on as somebody else, somebody who got a house and a career and maybe, probably, got married and had kids. Whose normal, secure life was enriched by the bewildering chaos of her early years.

But it was all a lie. There is nothing but chaos. I am flickering on the edge of it like a tethered helium balloon and nothing can stop my string breaking. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in ten years, maybe in thirty, maybe in sixty. But it will break. And then who knows what will happen.

Nobody, that’s who. Nobody. Not even my old headmaster. Not even Jilly Cooper. Not even God.

‘You are young, you are on your way up, when you cannot imagine how you will save yourself from death by boredom until dinner….But momentum propels you over the crest. Imperceptibly, you start down. When do the days start to blur and then, breaking your heart, the seasons?….The blur of cards makes one long sound like a bomb’s whine, the whine of many bombs, and you know your course is fatal’ wrote Annie Dillard, about being thirty five.

I was thirty five when I read her. Thirty five and skint and single and living in a shed less than a mile from my primary school. The sheer unfathomable pointlessness of it all was truly breathtaking.

So breathtaking I had to surrender.

Surrender feels good. I feel ten years younger than I did ten years ago.

I feel like I’ve been sweeping a sandy beach, sweeping it for years and years, trying to tidy it up, and just recently it has become clear that the tide is coming in, and the tide is going to move the sand anyway, in whichever way the moon says, and it has nothing to do with me, and all I have to do is put the broom down and lie on the sand and soak it all in. And love, and laugh, and sing. And take pictures of primroses breaking through the darkness on the first day of spring.

And the beach is not tidy, and it does not have a beginning, or a middle, or an end. What it has is music. Imperfect, shining, inexplicable music.

Anyway I’m dying, like a burning star, and so are you. Which is why I’m swallowing my ego and sharing this rugged home recording of a song I sang at one of those perfect, destabilising weddings. It’s by Gallagher and Lyle, a pair of skirt-wearing Scots in their mid-sixties.

It’s called Stay Young.

Brave Imperfect World

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For much of last year I was busy recording an EP of six songs to go with my book. I loved the process. I loved going to the studio (an imperfect old pigshed). I loved sharing ideas with Richard, who honed his brilliant ears as the front man of cult indie band BOB. I loved the way the songs took on a life of their own and began to dictate what they needed – a piano line here, a vocal harmony there. We were playing, literally, recording the songs again and again, trying to iron out the mistakes and get the perfect take. But as time went on and the takes stacked up I began to notice something – In spite of their imperfections, I preferred some of the earlier, less perfect takes. I even began to listen to some of them forensically, like a scientist, trying to figure out what I did that I liked so much. I wanted to recreate the magic, only without the imperfections. Was it the timing, or was it that woody sound the cello had because the microphone was too close? Was it the phrasing or was it the croak in my voice because I had stayed up too late drinking and smoking? After weeks of trying, I realised that my efforts were futile. Like low-fat margarine, or fake fires. No mess, no magic. This was music, not science.

Chronic remorse’ wrote Aldous Huxley in a 1946 foreword to Brave New World, published in 1932, ‘is a most undesirable sentiment.’

Speaking of his own (brilliant) book, he says:

‘Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to re-write the book – and in the process of rewriting as an older, other person I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed.’

The other day my own book arrived in the post. It was exciting to hold a book in my hands that I had written. To think of all those weeks and months and years of work. I began to read. My excitement turned to horror. There were mistakes in it. There were bad sentences. There were cliches!

My ego is full of remorse. My ego wants to jump on a plane, assume a new identity and do my whole life all over again but better. Only I can’t. Because I am human, and being human means being imperfect. Making mistakes. Which is fortunate, because in life as well as in books and music, mistakes are where the magic is buried.

‘You’ve got to be hurt and upset, otherwise you can’t think of the really good, penetrating X-rayish phrases.’

Huxley’s Helmholtz knew that in a perfect world the only art is shit art.

My book is not perfect, and neither is the EP, but I’ve decided I’m going to muster up the courage to love them anyway, for the moments of magic they both contain. Just as I love my imperfect friends and family for the beauties they are, and just as I will keep on trying to love my imperfect self.

picture: my beautiful, imperfect friends and family listening to me read from my imperfect book and sing my imperfect songs imperfectly. #magiclife.

 

No regrets M8

penis banks

I recently traded in my aged Nokia for an iphone.*

It’s so tech it would probably do the washing up if I knew how to ask, which I don’t, so mainly I use it for navigating around London on my friend’s bike. It’s very safe. I hold the phone in my left hand and look at it with my left eye whilst my right hand does all the steering and braking and my right eye looks over my shoulder for buses. So far so good. But there’s a problem. The navigation app I downloaded for free (M8) has a personality disorder. I spot this because I have the exact same personality disorder. It’s called regret.

In a nutshell, whenever I make a mistake M8 insists I make a legal U-turn, so I can go back to where I was before I made it and do the same route all over again, but getting it right this time. The problem is, the roads are all one-way. Even if I do survive going backwards down them I end up wasting at least as much time as I would have done if I’d just found a whole new route from where I was when I realised I’d got lost.

I try to explain this to another friend, who I’m meeting for coffee. I’m an hour or so late. I blame M8.

‘I knew I shouldn’t have gone back over the river.’

‘What’s Peckham like, anyway?’

It always amazes me how little Londoners actually know about London.

‘You should try Tom Tom.’

For a nasty moment I thought she was steering me towards a dating site. Another sad fact of being almost 35. (For the record, I am perfectly happy freewheeling. But loose females are suspicious, like unattended bags at airports, and I find myself constantly encouraged by government, advertisers, friends and enemies to please SETTLE DOWN….)

‘Tom Tom?’

‘When you go wrong with a Tom Tom they don’t tell you to do illegal U-turns, they just re-plan the route from where you’ve ended up. So as long as you know where you’re going, you’ll always get there, it just might take a little bit longer.’

(OK, my friend didn’t actually say that, but you see where I’m going with this…)

I’m nearly 35 and I’ve only just got around to recording my first album and publishing my first book. The slowness of my progress has been keeping me awake at night. I’ve been trying to work out what the hell I’ve been doing for the past ten years, because I’ve always known deep down that this was my path. And I’ve been lying there in my shed wishing I could go back to the start of this path and take it again, but without getting lost in a maze of love affairs and surf trips and trying to find the money to pay my car tax and beautiful sunsets and crap telly and Facebook and growing vegetables and partying and playing records and buying second-hand guitars on back streets in Lima and, you know, just generally LIVING, which takes time.

It’s confusing. If I hadn’t done all this I might have got to this point on my path at 25. Which would probably have made me more marketable. But then again, I’d have had a lot less to sing and write about.

I got lost again on the way back to Peckham after meeting my friend. This time I left M8 in my pocket. It took me about an hour longer than it should have, but I got there in the end. I saw some things along the way. Memorable things, beautiful things, ugly, inspiring, frightening, random, bizarre things, such as banks made in the image of penises. Things I would never have seen if I hadn’t been lost, or if I’d had my left eye stuck to my phone and my right eye looking over my shoulder to see if it was safe to make a legal U-turn in order to go the wrong way down a one-way street.

*second-hand iphone – the mobile phone industry leaves a trail of human blood and environmental disasters – probs not worth it?

 

Rainbows

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RAINBOWS are lucky. I didn’t feel lucky the day I took this through the windscreen of my big yellow Iveco, one hand on the wheel, one holding the camera. It was raining.

I was heartbroken, grief-stricken and terrified, heading north on Norway’s Highway 55. But luck comes in many guises, and that lonely road turned into an extraordinary adventure.