Sorry for the delay. Where was I?
Oh yes, in Barrafina, Frith Street, on a warm Soho evening, with beer flooding my senses and salt on my tongue. I’m having dinner with my 76 year old father, Felix, a native New Yorker on a rare visit to London.
Giddily, I had sent him the link to the last How Far To The Horizon, thinking it would keep him abreast of my movements and cut back on those Trans-Atlantic telephone pauses when the inevitable question of what is new crops up. We’ve subsequently spent the last few months not mentioning it. But here we are, at the bar, running low on topics of conversation. Felix manfully approaches the elephant and saddles up.
“So Teddy, what character are you trying to portray with this….”
My dad – an obituary writer, formerly a distinguished foreign correspondent – chews the word over.
What character am I trying to portray? Good question Felix. Well, this month the character I’m portraying is that of a dude who finds himself standing on the raised mound of The Hub in Regents Park on a Saturday morning looking for pugs. The character of a reluctant pug groupie. Let me explain.
As she convalesces, JC has had to forego universal pastimes such as “drink” and “drugs” and “raving” for other ideas. Ideas like “gardening” and “yoga” and “pugs”. Pugs? Yes, pugs. The breed of dog. The breed of dog that look like this:
But before actually committing to buying a pug and getting wrist deep in one of the little rascals, she decides upon a scouting mission to hang out with some and see what makes those guys tick.
It is ironic and a little pathetic, then, that even though we are not RPPC members, we are the first to arrive for the Regent’s Park Pug Club meet. Surveying the horizon from the mound for swarms of pugs chasing each other gleefully over the cricket pitches, I am reminded of the many hours I too have invested in these fields chasing my own tail. The mists of time peel back…
“Don’t be fucking late,” Steven Wells would instruct forcefully but uselessly via email and we’d heed his piper’s call, lurking by the Outer Circle gate in various states of undress every Thursday evening at 6.30 between the months of May and September, sometimes 20 strong, often as few as 10. Yet though we arrived late every week, we would also stay late, clumping a ball between mountainous goalposts made of bags, coats, shoes, injured smokers, etc, until dark, and then we would troupe off to the pub proudly noting that we were the last game to leave the park. Swells’ Thursday night football, an institution I joined in – what?! – 1997 and played in religiously until last summer when the sun set on my knees.
Swells was a very bad footballer, initially. This was mainly because until he’d played in Regents Park, in his early 30s, he had never really kicked a ball. But what he lacked in ability and an understanding of the basic rules, he made up with sheer, hilarious antagonism. “The team that shouts the loudest always wins,” was his mantra and so it proved if Swells was doing the shouting. There was little room for any other voice anyway, as Swells would spend the game commentating on all the action, even as an opposition forward swept past him to score – Swells breaking off to scream at anyone near him to “COVER MY WING!!!!” Those who were hypnotized by his vivid writing for NME throughout the 80s and 90s may imagine that that aggressively lurid prose could only be employed successfully in print. It wasn’t. He could summon genius streams of loud, cliché-free abuse that twanged a very deep personal nerve, very gently, at any point, even while being skinned by a floppy-fringed winger half his age.
Sometimes we’d play against strangers. And though we weren’t very good, we lost surprisingly rarely for two good reasons: 1) We played horrible, lump it, long ball football, which always trumps skill in a park; 2) We had Swells heckling. I loved playing football with Steven Wells, even though I probably had to be restrained from punching him half a dozen times. I loved it so much, because it could be so fucking funny, that I started playing with him on a Sunday too, a game for which he also produced a weekly match report: 800 words of his very best work, taking the piss out of you and your friends, and where he always ended up the misunderstood hero even when the facts contradicted that award. Someone has them all logged, a decade’s worth. Imagine that.
I haven’t played in the park since he died just over a year ago, yet I can hear his ghostly derision ringing in my ears as I await the pugs. Steven Wells would not have attended the Regent’s Park Pug Club meet. But romance can force strange new properties upon a man. It can liberalise dogma, a fact he would have appreciated, as love transformed him physically – he turned up one fresh summer in the park muscle-bound and incredibly fit, and instead of aggressively smoking he started sucking down some kind of gym-rat pink gloop before and after matches – and then it lured him across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, never to return.
The game carried on in his absence under the slightly less antagonistic rule of Johnny Cigs, and our win ratio crept up too, but never did it reduce me to my knees in tears of laughter again either (other than the occasion Phil McFuck, our free-spirited Billy The Fish-like Geordie goalie/winger, played with his balls hanging from his shorts…but I digress). I miss it, I miss him. He left us in park-football purgatory, awaiting his final email haranguing, waiting, just waiting. Several times after he left for the US we attempted a Swells Memorial Match, but it never quite captured the spirit of yore. For the only memorial match that would truly honour Steven Wells would be one in which his commentary echoed insanely across the field. It was hard to imagine then and beyond likely now. Cover my wing? Impossible.
All this passes through me as I stand perving on pugs, surrounded by a gang of snuffling, wheezing, yapping hounds and their awkward owners. The meet is not what we imagined. It’s even less fun. The dogs, cute from a distance as we spy on them from a bench, appear to be choking on their own breath up close. It is not a strong look. And so we exit the RPPC and head across the park, pausing only to admire a group of whippets soaring after flung bones and balls. It’s the Regent’s Park Whippet Club. Now that, the whippet, that is a majestic little dog…
Ping! An email arrives.
I’m off for two weeks from Thursday. If, in my absence, you happen to
finish writing up the next episode of your life, could you make sure
and cc Andrew please.
Have we been dallying? Let’s finish this swiftly. Other distractions since we last crossed paths:
1) Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango
Felt fans surely all imagine that they are alone in the world. After all, Felt split up twenty years ago and sold few records during their ten years together. They never featured on the cover of music magazines (they were pipped for an NME cover by a last minute think piece on youth suicide – at that time, the NME’s worst selling issue) and their passing merited little more than a mention in the inky news pages. Only you, the teenager at your gruelling work station thumbing through your weekly NME fix, only you really cared when the news broke that Lawrence was packing it in. And now, in 2010, the music still grips you with the same poetic intensity and intimacy that it did as it pinned you to your bedroom floor 25 years ago. It does, doesn’t it? It’s just you and Lawrence; you, Lawrence, Deebank, Duffy, Gary Ainge….that’s it. Nobody else knows. Nobody cares.
You are not alone, friends. An excellent new book edited by Christian Flamm and Mike Sperlinger called Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango reminds you of that fact, telling Felt’s story in a variety of voices, featuring contributions from band members, sleeve designers and fans alike. The highlights are myriad – a transcript of a beautifully misjudged radio interview with Felt on Radio Tyne in 1987; essays on their time in Felt by members Gary Ainge, Phil King and John Mohan; Lora Findlay’s memories of working on sleeves with the obsessively compulsive Lawrence; a great new photo of Lawrence by Paul Kelly; Maurice Deebank’s ghostly faxed coda – but at the pinnacle are two very long (but not long enough) interviews with Lawrence: a lost transcript of a conversation with Chris Heath in 1985 and another with Alastair Fitchett twenty years later, both serving powerful reminders of Lawrence’s pure if near fatal artistic vision, as well as his wry, wise charm. You are reminded that he’s the only one who is seeing it through, from punk to death. You won’t find Lawrence taking that job at the council tax office to pay the rent. He’s not giving up on being Lawrence – there’s no sell out, not until enough people want to buy, anyway. He’s alone out there. We probably won’t truly celebrate what he’s achieved until it’s too late, I fear, but this makes a dent.
Buy the book here: www.foxtrotecholimatango.blogspot.com. It’s a tenner.
2) Es Vedra
Ah, Es Vedra: magical, mystical, magnetic rock, dominating the landscape, the sea, the sky and all around its Ibizian radius. They say it’s “the third most magnetic place on earth”, that they banished medieval Spanish witches there, that it’s a portal to Atlantis, that aliens have been seen in its vicinity…They say a lot of things about Es Vedra. But all I say is that no rock can compare. You cannot escape its pull, nor she your gaze.
I’m thinking all this as I tread Mediterranean water but a couple of hours after landing in Ibiza, the sun setting to Es Vedra’s left, the water a little fresh, perhaps, but clear and…crack! FUUUUCKKKK!!! I kick a much, much smaller if no less rugged rock beneath the surf. The pain is intense, as if I have been electrocuted, but I flap ashore pretending it’s not that bad. A month later, the pain lingers on and I am still spellbound.
3) My old house, Walthamstow, E17
Selling a house can be a humbling experience. You loved that place once. You longed to have it. You made it yours. You redesigned it, you remodelled it, you tarted it up. And then the time came for you to sell it. You haven’t seen it for a while, but you know it’s still a cracker. If you had 290 grand to spend on a smart 3 bedroom Victorian terraced house in a quiet cul-de-sac with its own leafy garden, close to the tube, close to the rail, close to the marshes, close to the Lea, very close to the market…well, you’d buy it.
And then you decide to sell it. You are marketed online and the viewings come thick and fast in these first ten days. As do the rejections, and the rejections hum their own melancholic tune:
“Nice house, but not for us.”
“Nice house, but declined to offer.”
“Really loved the house, her husband loved it…but declined to offer.”
“Found something in Chingford.”
For some reason, the last comment hurts most. If anyone would like to buy a small, sweet house in Walthamstow, do let me know.
In the meantime, I’m returning to do battle anew with Es Vedra. More upon my return…