Hats

The Blue Nile
Linn Records (1989)

hatsWorking night and day I try to get ahead
But I don’t get ahead this way

Autumn 1990. Second year of university. Riding the 20 into Glasgow. Listening to this opening track as the sun comes up, golden and magical, over the hillsides of the town. My bag on the seat beside me, saving it for L, hoping the bus doesn’t fill up too much before her stop. The prospect of a cold nose pressed to mine and a sweet sticky chapsticky kiss. This album is dedicated to that memory.

I can’t go on and I can’t go back
I don’t feel so, matter of fact
I tried and tried to make good sense
What’s the good to try it all again?

This album is also dedicated to the feeling of trying to be in love with someone you know is wrong for you.

The music was always richly nostalgic, even when it was just released. It’s music with an old soul. It spoke of old truths we were only just beginning to learn for ourselves. These are songs of experience. They’re the songs of a young man, borne of world weary wisdom.

How do I know you’re feeling? How do I know it’s true?

It’s dedicated to the Glasgow we used to know, to the Glasgow we knew before we knew Glasgow. The lights we saw as children. George Square at Christmas. Sauchiehall Street. The La Scala. The Irn-Bru clock. The Corporation buses. The window displays at Frasers and Goldbergs. The cafes our grannies took us to. The places that made our early memories of the city seem tinged with sadness and distance even as we entered our 20s.

We. Our. You can get mawkish with this stuff. Indeed, there’s a whole cottage industry around Glasgow nostalgia. But this album’s not that. Its poetry celebrates the city in its ordinary aspect, doesn’t get lost in particulars. Long after it feels the song should have faded out, the final chorus of The Downtown Lights presents a perfect imagist poem of the city. There’s nothing in it that especially suggests Glasgow. It could be anywhere. But just read it:

The neons and the cigarettes
The rented rooms, the rented cars
The crowded streets, the empty bars
Chimney tops and trumpets
The golden lights, the loving prayers
The coloured shoes, the empty trains
I’m tired of crying on the stairs
The downtown lights

How could it be anywhere else?

There was a time when Glasgow was large and held many mysteries, the names of the streets still had things to declare, secrets to reveal. Whole areas remained unexplored. It was full of people I had yet to meet, had yet to fall in with, fall out with. The place had promise.

Where the cars go by
All the day and night
Why don’t you say

What’s so wrong tonight?

The parts of the city I knew from childhood were the well-worn lines between Carntyne, Cardonald and East Kilbride. Views from the back seat of my parents’ car as we did the Sunday visiting rounds. Later, the freedom of the city, pocket money bus trips into town. A few shops. The Walrus and Carpenter. The Clyde Model Dockyard. My accordeon teacher in his tiny tenement dunny above Biggar’s. From the M8, tower blocks loomed dangerously in the distance, totems of a Glasgow that was, for us, foreign and unknowable. We never went west.

I know a place where everything’s all right, all right.

It’s incredibly healing music for me. It’s an album I need to hear up close, with darkness and raindrops at the window. I need to feel it reverberate gently inside my ears, wash warmly into my heart and reassure me that everything is going to be all right. And Paul Buchanan is a singer you trust with every single breath he sings with. You believe him absolutely, even as your heart is breaking.

And if in love she cried
Something wasn’t right

Hearing this album again after a very long time, I’m curious to note that cars feature rather prominently. Neon, rain, cigarettes, trains, bars. Yes. Also cars. Which should come as no surprise, really, for a city that has long since lost its soul to the motor car.

Headlights on the Parade
Light up the way
I love you

The song is named for Alexandra Parade in Dennistoun, with its eponymous headlights shining in the shadow of the monstrous M8 motorway half a mile away. The Parade itself leads to the old Edinburgh Road – former escape route to the genteel city. My grandparents lived just off that road, on Morningside Street. I once loved a girl who lived in actual Morningside in Edinburgh. Strange connections.

My Dad’s from round here. I always assumed I’d carry on the tradition, always imagined I’d find love and live along the Parade. Walking arm in arm on a rainwashed Saturday night at teatime, going out somewhere we both like, cars swishing rainwater into our shoes. But listening closely to myself here, to these songs, I’m astonished at how much of this album has infected my dreams and desires.

The city wins while you and I
Can’t find a way

I ended up living in Dennistoun for a short time, further down towards the Duke Street end, and had a romance that outlived my stay there, but not by much. I returned several years later looking to rent or buy, and every window I looked out from, across the city I could only see memories I never had, and the lights of the Parade glinting like sweets lined up in jars.

From a late night train
Reflected in the water
When all the rainy pavements
Lead to you

This is dusk music. Crepuscular. The musical arrangements are painted in soft oils with hard edges. The band’s great skill here is to place the listener into the landscape. We’ve all been on that train.

For me, it’s the line that runs through High Street. Looking out left as you leave the city centre, high up and heading east you see the Necropolis, etched out in silhouette against a darkening sky. A girl gets on with a wet umbrella. A short story fragment, a tiny drama.

It’s over.
I know it’s over.
But I can’t let go.

I never really shared my love of this music with L. It was kind of a given. Everyone loved The Blue Nile. They were never a fashionable band, but they were never a corny 80s turn either. This album is so very of its time, but the music hasn’t dated. They weren’t Hue & Cry, for example, or Deacon Blue, who were exactly contemporary and who weren’t running shy of the whole pop thing the way this lot were.

Stop. Go
Stop. Go.
I don’t know.

I stopped listening to the album after things fell apart with L. The music and the feeling of falling in love were inseparable. To hear these songs, that voice… for years the mere mention of The Blue Nile was to remind me of rejection and failure.

Who do you love?
Who do you really love?
Who are you holding on to?
Who are you dreaming of?
Who do you love?
When it’s cold and it’s starlight
When the streets are so big and wide

And I still wonder, if it weren’t for the music, would I have fallen quite so suddenly, quite so deeply for someone quite so wrong – or fallen quite so hard on my face…

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Bench Press

by Sven Lindqvist
Granta (2003)

bench-press

I’ll admit to being a sucker for a self-help book. There are a few from that particular genre tucked away in a quiet corner of my bedroom bookshelf, on the opposite end from the sports books. Bench Press, sits half way between them.

It’s a book that belongs to neither category, though it contains elements of both. In fact, I’m not even sure what kind of book it is – it’s an essay made up of lots of essays, it’s a kind of fragmentary memoir, a selective history of body-building that’s also a book of dreams, a book about self-improvement that offers its reader none of the usual pointers and platitudes.

Ultimately, it’s a book about finding oneself which is possibly why I return to it so often. I love the way it’s composed, almost like music. Like a song-cycle of thematically linked, individually discrete, perfectly formed chapters that each sing out resoundingly on their own. Taken together, they make a strange and compelling whole.

Bench Press seems to lack any kind of central narrative. If it’s a quest, as many such autobiographical explorations are, it’s not about a search for anything obvious – a missing father, a family mystery etc. And I don’t think the author began writing it with a clear idea of what he was looking for. There’s nothing to hook you, to propel you forwards. Instead, it seems to propel you downwards. It’s a book that takes you deeper into its subject, deeper into the author’s dreamworld, deeper into the source of whatever it is – and we have only a few clues to go on – that incited him to begin writing in the first place.

There are a number of recurring images: a new-born’s fontanelle, fire-eaters, desert divers, falling keys. The thread that sews it all together is body-building, specifically his entry into the discipline of weight training. Lindqvist intersperses snappy little chunks of sporting history, from the development of weight-lifting machines to the training techniques of successful athletes, alongside a report on a body-building contest held in Gothenburg. But the aspect of the book that provides its centre of gravity, as it were, is where Lindqvist recounts the effects of weight training on his interior life as his exterior body adjusts to the demands of his new discipline. I can relate to all of it. Reading this book always unleashes surprising recollections and associations.

Body-building was the first sport I got interested in as a teenager. I bought a set of dumb-bells and a chest expander (!) which I worked with at home until I got the confidence to start going to a gym. I bought a book on body-building, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, studied all the main muscle groups and how to work them: learned my deltoids from my trapezius, my lats from my pecs from my quads, my glutes from my abs. I bought some disgusting protein shake stuff from the health food shop and trained ardently but aimlessly for a while until America came calling.

When I enrolled in high school in El Paso, I expressed an interest in attending the gym. My host brother was a varsity quarterback. He took me to where they worked out, the only time I ever went there – the kids here were operating on an altogether different level. I met boys my age but twice my size, huge mustachioed Mexicans in their early teens built like refrigerators, freshmen that could bench their fathers, all of them proving their might and muscle in a range of vigorous team pursuits that required strength and bulk and power. I felt weak and wan. I tried out for the wrestling team because I had been practising a martial art called Tukido at home for a while and I fancied I could handle myself. I lasted a couple of gruelling training sessions and finally balked after being tangled painfully to the mat during practice by a boy made seemingly entirely of knuckle.

The gym habit never entirely left me, though I’ve never quite felt at home with the heavy mob, the Muscle Marys, the grunters and humphers heaving into floor length mirrors. The vocabulary I had picked up came in useful when I started teaching in Turkey. I met an ambitious young man called Ozdenir, a former Junior Mr Turkey who trained at a gym across the road from the school where I worked. Ozdenir’s plan was to work in the posh hotels in Ankara, to become a personal trainer to rich Westerners, make his fortune, move to America. He was in that school every single day attending every extra class he could, as well as my own elementary class. We became friends – Ozdenir was friends with everybody – and I offered to give him personal English tuition in exchange for a bit of weight training. I taught him the language of the gym: sets and reps, pull-downs and push-ups, curls and squats. All that. And in return he helped me put together a training programme, showed me how to use a few machines, got me to think about my diet. It worked perfectly until we both had what we needed. His English continued to improve at an amazing rate; I trained on my own for a while until my social life started to get in the way.

I still go to the gym a couple of times a week, still lift tiny weights – I kid myself on that I’m building endurance, not mass. Which is kind of also true, but I prefer to annihilate myself on the stationary bike and rowing machines, plunging my heart rate into and out of the red repeatedly until I can barely see. I love that.

And I’m talking about self-annihilation here in the metaphorical sense, of course; the best sense. I realised, not long after my mother died, that I needed to have exercise in my life to keep me happy. I was smoking, I was over-weight, I was in a job I hated, I was in a relationship that was making me miserable. Everything was connected but I couldn’t find a way out.

I had been suicidal before so I knew that I was prone to extremely dark and dangerous thoughts relating to my lack of self-worth. These thoughts weren’t connected to any particular event or situation, it was like it was just in me, like the way you get a really bad cold every few years that keeps you off work. Feeling suicidal was a bit like that. It came over me like a virus.

I took to exercise as a way of staving off the demons. And it worked. But it’s a lesson I repeatedly forget to remember. So much of our psychology is bound up with our physiology. This should not be news to us, but it is. It repeatedly is. We forget we are flesh. We get so lost in our heads and hearts that we let our bodies that carry them turn to mush. Every time I feel the wave of crushing self-hate crashing over me, it takes ages – sometimes months – to realise that I’ve stopped exercising. Or that I’m tired. Or that I’ve been eating shit food. And, yes, they’re all related, one begets the other, but it’s relatively easy to stop the rot. Go to the gym. Get on the bike. Go for a run.

I’m not really interested in why I’m like this. I’m not looking for a narrative, not looking for a reason. I just am, and kind of always have been, kind of always will be – to one extent or another. And I love it when you meet a fellow traveller, someone like Lindqvist, to remind you that your faults and failings and frailties, along with your delts and quads and abs and glutes, are the very things that make you a human, just like everybody else.

Aphrodite

Paris & Sharp
(2001)

aphroditeIt might seem a strange piece of music to associate with something as momentous as the death of my mother but here it is, in her anniversary week, a memento of a moment in time.

Mum died October 14th, 2001. She was 56.

It’s almost too big a subject to write about. The timeline of her death – a brief four weeks from hospitalisation to cremation – is beginning to sand over, events shifting and blown by the winds of time, memories waning. It’s an event that divides my life into two distinct epochs: the time with my mother alive; the time since.

There’s something ethereal, otherworldy, almost heavenly about this music, an unlikely description, perhaps, for a piece of percussive electronica. I heard it in the car a number of times as I was driving back and forward in the quickening nights between home and hospital. It soon became an earworm and I went out and bought the single. It’s a dance track, but a vocal sample from a Hans Zimmer movie score gives the music its spice aroma that draws my ear and fires my imagination. Concrete cityscapes, desert dry dunescapes. Sodium lamps, sunken tombs, dead roads.¬†Incantation. Prayer. Ritual.

Mum was a Catholic. A really devout one. Which meant that I was raised as one. By the time I reached the end of my first year at university, I had given all that up, and for a while it created an unholy schism between my mother and I. She felt that my rejection of her faith was a rejection of her. But it wasn’t a personal thing. There was a moment where I saw the inherent doublethink and hypocrisy at the heart of religion in a wider sense and chose to reject it.

But you don’t escape lightly from a lifetime of indoctrination. I know the ins and outs of Catholicism even still, and even as I continue to reject it it stays with me. In the days after her death, I could not recognise the frantic rosaries, the rhythmic ritualistic murmuring that was constantly around us, as anything I once identified with. I had absolutely no use for it. It depersonalised her. It severed my grief. It made a stranger of me in the family home. When I was preparing the eulogy that I would read to the mourners at her funeral, a pious relative took me aside and warned me that my words had better not say anything too personal.

It took a week to arrange the cremation. In the days preceding that, my mother’s body lay in the living room, waiting to receive the blessings of those who came to pay their respects: family, nuns, priests, friends in Christ, all crowded round to recite, incant, sing mutedly.

I couldn’t connect with any of that. The body that lay in that cold, cold room, the body that had conceived me, that had carried me, that had been my conduit into the world and my first contact with it, my first source of comfort and strength, was now some kind of token of who my mother really was in the eyes of God. Religion treats the body as a device for the soul, a carrier of the spirit. Here, in her own house, my mother’s body had been reduced to an abstraction, a stand-in for the bit that God lay claim to. And that bit had gone, chased into the afterlife by prayer. The intensity of these rosary recitals was as foreign to me as listening to a room full of ululating Arab women. Why the urgency? It was all over. It was too late for words – unless you take the view that these rituals exist as a balm for the living.

Mum had died in the hospital days before. She had been transferred to the cancer ward where her condition rapidly deteriorated. We saw her one night, the last time we saw her conscious, and she was furiously reciting prayers through her oxygen mask. She knew, though we were still in complete denial about it, that she was going to die. We were no use to her. She sent us away.

The next time we saw Mum, she was in a coma. She had been moved overnight to her own room and had developed the rasping, laboured breathing associated with imminent death.  It was a shock to us, as we were expecting her to begin treatment that day. A well meaning medic took us aside Рmy father, brother and I Рand told us she was going to die.

We came out, reeling and numb, and went to Mum’s room. The violent rasping had subsided, her breathing getting shallower and shallower. Her best friend had arrived with one of their nun friends and sat together with my great-aunt, praying by Mum’s side. I stood helpless for a while, listening, frustration growing. To me, these useless words were getting in the way of any meaningful communication taking place. It was a waste of the final moments any of us would have with her. The cancer was about to take her life away and no-one could say anything for this endless stream of nonsense. Then I asked everyone if I could be with Mum alone, and they obliged.

What does a son say to his dying mother? What does she need to hear? What do you need her to know? What are the words that truly count? Words of love, gratitude, reassurance.  In the repressed and emotionally straitened culture of the west of Scotland, we often lack the ability to make these words part of our lives, though we may crave to speak them, to have them spoken to us. It was hard to hold her hand with so many tubes sticking into it. We were never a very touchy-feely family. We make life so very difficult for ourselves.

I try to imagine her as a grandmother. I try to see her in my daughter. I’m sure my dad does too. When we visit Grandad, we play with the bangles and brooches in Mum’s old jewellery box. It saddens me that she won’t be part of my daughter’s life, but we say night night to Nana Honor every night. And as she gets older, we’ll continue to talk about her, to look at old photos and she’ll know the warmth and beauty and generosity of the woman I knew – not the God-bound spirit vessel, but the very real, very wonderful human being who drew so much love around her, who had so much love to share. An Aphrodite in her own way.