There are stories of great artists, men and women who lived years ago in noble poverty, gifted people living solitary lives out of kilter with the world at large. Often these artists were completely misunderstood, and this misunderstanding held the artists in contempt of what their society, or their families, termed normal. This is not to say they were without patrons or lovers, those generous with either their wealth or their understanding. Nevertheless, the few that claimed to grasp the artist’s outpourings were unable to demystify or to convey the riddles held captive in great art and these patrons became more cul-de-sac than conduit. Their admiration and explanations thickened the curious fug, allowing myth to spread as regal blood on common cotton. More often than not, these great artists disappeared from generations of consciousness solely because the people that recorded history deemed them unfit to play their own role in it. Some made a little money in their lifetime, yet in most of these stories the great artist died alone in poverty accompanied only by the tools of their brilliance: a paint brush, manuscript or guitar.
This is not one of those stories. But it is not dissimilar, the main difference being that this great artist is still alive. This is the story of the recording artist Sonny Johnson, a child born into the blues with yellow jaundice and an impresario father. Otis ‘Guitar’ Johnson’s own story is woven to his son’s with greater intricacy than genetics alone. Otis ‘Guitar’ Johnson was a revered and incredibly talented musician who wielded a guitar like a scan that revealed a cancerous tumour. This was a scan that you couldn’t help rubbernecking at. One that delivered news of the impending demise of someone who’d done you wrong, very wrong, real wrong. A scan that modern medicine could perhaps overcome. A guitar that sounded like progress, but one that reconciled the struggles of the past with just three chords from the Mississippi Delta. Otis was a man of Egyptian descent who lived in California, who hailed from an established and notable family, whose brother was Egypt’s longest serving ambassador to the U.S.A. He was a determined man who caused strife amongst his family at the height of the civil rights bloodshed by renouncing his Pharaonic lineage, and declaring himself a proud black man, in order to lend his iron will and beloved Fender Super Reverb to the struggle for emancipation. A man my own father listened to with awe.
Sonny Johnson unwrapped his first guitar, a gift from his father, on Christmas Day 1956. He was just three years old. His mother, Constance, a sincere woman of nurture and tenderness (paradoxically drawn to raw talent and drive), bought him what he’d asked for: an electric train set. That Christmas and the subsequent spring, Sonny chose to play with the train set instead of the guitar. This was a source of friction in the Johnson household, the friction of destiny rubbing up rough against the innocence of want. Destiny was opening up before him while the train set looped round and round, round and round.
By the age of six Sonny proved to be unnaturally gifted in both composition and playing. The hours of writing scores and daily practice his father insisted upon only accentuated his most uneven of gifts. It was as if every novice guitarist who spent idle afternoons hacking out renditions of Stairway to Heaven in the music sections of department stores had their originality snatched from them, long before they were born - at some distant and indeterminable point in the past - by the very Pharaoh King that Sonny had directly descended from.
There is a word, much over used, which has lost all clout and meaning through repeated and unnecessary usage. That word is prodigy. Many recording artists have been called prodigious by the muppet hacks of mass media. I laugh as these commentators take the word in vain, freely assigning it to holiday camp entertainers and mock shaman of the popular song. A true prodigy storms the citadel of talent, adds intensity to creativity and hot breath intimacy to the myriad, renders powerless the idiot wind. Real talent digs a tunnel from window to window, yes, a tunnel, from their window to yours. Jimi Hendrix cried the first time he saw Sonny play and that’s good enough for me.
By the age of eight the precocious prodigy Sonny Johnson had played on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and recorded in the Capitol studios. The recording engineer in Capitol studios at that time was a young blond man with a grand and established moustache. Perhaps it is the angle of the photograph in the studio’s anthology that suggests a Viking linage not recorded with words. But brave warrior or not, he was wise enough to approach the recording process with a wonderfully bounteous set of rules he based upon the ancient Greeks legislation for friendship. With this unorthodox methodology he captured perfectly soul with science and ensured innovation had both weight and reason. It was he who suggested that Sonny use a narrator’s microphone to best capture his elegant timbre. These first forays in the studio calmed Sonny’s not inconsiderable nerves, and from here he went on to play in countless sessions, learning all the time from the day’s finest players, most of whom had recorded for his father’s band.
In 1968 the whole Johnson family went on the road. His mother provided him with tethered stability and home schooled him, not at home, but between gigs in various hotel rooms across America. Sonny ate literature and the attitude of Catcher in the Rye was his favourite main course. He never bothered with dessert, just listened to Frank Zappa and played along in his head. In his thirteenth year, Sonny was invited to perform with Sly and the Family Stone, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. Otis ‘Guitar’ Johnson politely declined these invites without his son’s knowledge. At the age of fourteen, in his first Rolling Stone interview with a provocative Lester Bangs, Sonny dismissed Eric Clapton as a burglar in a clown suit on the day his mother took his electric train set to the local hospice.
January 1971 saw the release of Sonny Kills the Blues, his first long player released by Arista, home to his father’s catalogue. The fanfare that surrounded the release could barely be described as moderate. Those in the know knew about it, spoke of it frequently in the company of other musicians, but the record failed to reignite the public’s passion for a genre that many considered in need of a lick of paint. The album wasn’t a priority for the record label. They didn’t like its title and believed it lacked a standout radio friendly single. That is not to say it was without songs with memorable melodies. The lyrics captured the spirit of the blues and recast them in a positively brighter yet more enigmatic light. There was also the issue of nepotism. Many of the label’s staff, and in particular the managing director, had a fractious relationship with Otis ‘Guitar’ Johnson. They found him obtuse and hard to handle. They begrudged spending the necessary payola on Sonny to achieve a radio playlist for a record they believed to be too purist, and too similar to his father’s material. The accompanying tour was more of a success. Sonny honed his stagecraft within a handful of shows, and led his band with the skill of a much older and more experienced man. The reviews of these first performances ensured that the tour wasn’t embarrassingly empty. Those that attended found that along with the melodies he crafted, thoughts of Sonny the performer drifted into their minds in the weeks and years after.
It is worth mentioning that this album captured the mind of a young man by the name of Prince Rodgers Nelson. He played along to every single song in his bedroom each and every night long before he dropped the Rogers and Nelson from his professional name. This small fanbase grew slightly when a number of more established artists, including Pink Floyds’s Roger Walters, listed Sonny Kills the Blues as their favourite album of the year. The album was a surprise hit in France in 1972. Sonny played a show in Paris the same year and my father shared the stage with him, the highlight of his spell as a L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet. I was there too, a wide-eyed child watching from the side of the stage holding his mistress’s hand, wearing crushed velvet shorts and thinking about my mother.
In 1973, a semblance of fame arrived for Sonny. Not the quick and incandescent mode of fame, but the slow and ponderous one, made from metal, that gradual conductor of heat that holds onto Celsius like seventeen year old with a fresh driving license. Not that the sixteen year old Sonny was aware of this growing fame, secluded in the studio, getting down with his Amplex reel-to-reel, taking control of each and every instrument he played. Yet he was unsure and insecure about the work being produced, feeling on some days that it was completely worthless, over formulaic nonsense and a waste of his time. A stabbing sense of corrosion stalked him, pleasurable only for its lack of banality. Then on some days, life was just ok and the best he could hope for was to be just an ok musician. On others, that he might just be onto something, something to work upwards from.
These trapeze acts of moods continued to black dog him at home and in the studio, on the long walks he took along the secluded Californian coastline each morning, from first thing to last, in other words: all the fucking time. I was thirteen, and in love from a distance, when my first poem was published in Ambit Magazine. I’d never spoken to my Muse, but planned to show her affection in black, white and rhythm. Running across the village green to the newsagents for what seemed like weeks, each morning I walked back empty handed passed a solitary homeless man. Waiting for the off-license to open, he sat on a green bench that faced an old wishing well. From behind a wild beard, he never stopped muttering or shouting at it. I was never quite sure if he was arguing with the wishing well, or asking it for change. Maybe both. He wasn’t there the day my poem turned up in print, but I told my mother about him as she sat at the refectory table in our kitchen. With my published work in her hand, she told me she’d been to Art College with the homeless man. That he was once a gifted painter always troubled by depression. The word depression just hung in the air.
I became familiar with mental disturbance in my twenties. It arrived wearing the garb of progression, just the right outfit for hijacking my creative plain. It skewed decisions and molested my clarity. For most of the years since I’ve judged myself harshly, and then passed on the standards of my own self-judgement onto other people. Surprised as my relationships failed, I spent dense black time wondering how to manage living alone in such a state, whilst believing that there’s no other place to function creatively. Wretched bouts of depression are difficult to shake. Sonny got to the end of them and then found out it was only the middle. Then, finally, over the course of nine schizophrenic and self-sodomising months he arrived someplace, or someplace arrived at him, a place that allowed for his work to remain rawer and more abstract than he’d previously imagined it to be, perhaps unfinished, unfinished perhaps, but washed in the knowledge that nothing is ever actually at an end.
Sonny recognised that the ear and the brain will often seek out recognition within the sonics of abstraction, so much so that both attribute it freely and falsely. Equipped with this newfound understanding and freed from the veil of form Sonny began to kiss rubies into ears. He composed an album comprised of one single continuous piece of music forty-nine minutes long, a jigsaw puzzle of large pieces interspersed with verses and choruses and melodies, a glorious procession of lips and hands that spliced themselves to the rest of the piece, and worked – when edited – as three as standalone singles. These singles would eventually be termed the Juggernauts of Pop by people that really should have known better. Sonny completed his second album in three weeks flat, and then he ran to find his mother and asked where his train set was.
It is hard to recount what would today be called the hype that surrounded the release of Sonny’s second album Inchoate Information. Hype is perhaps not the best word to use, having as it does attachments of media manipulation at its core, but this was 1976 and the beast of hype was yet to wonder the inexistent internet domain. No one said it was the best album ever with no less than three exclamation marks and two different emoticons. The music stood up to hype, grabbed it by the collar, kneed it in the nuts, then pushed it backwards and threw a thousand gilded plectrums in its nebulous face. Inchoate Information was simultaneously genre defining and genre blurring, a gift to the cannon of music. It unwrapped a new tenderness in melancholy, and captured perfectly the sun kissed coastline much of it had been conceived upon. The vinyl could have been made from sand, its grooves made from tidemarks left on the beach. That is not to say it contained only soppy music for soporific idiots who never listen to lyrics because they consider them superfluous. The as long as I can hum it brigade were captivated by the narratives in Sonny’s songs, became as satisfied as the chin-stokers, became chin-strokers themselves. This was a record that grew goatees and shed preconceptions. Men who adored Babe Ruth and the giants of baseball, men who had only taken music as temporary conquests in the disabled toilets of sports bars, men who proudly considered themselves immune to the poetry of composition became infected with his music and danced with their true lovers in the kitchen to records they’d never heard before. Street hawkers who required opiates and rolled-up fifty-dollar bills to snort themselves into a loaded stupor found a new high in melodious sobriety. All of this was down to his art, the art he provided, the art he made alone. Sonny ruled the airwaves of several nations for a hot summer and a dank winter. The great and the good flocked to his gigs, the talent on show so potent they just had to be there. Eric Clapton agreed to be photographed wearing a clown suit holding the album’s sleeve aloft. Stevie Nicks offered to blow coke up Sonny’s arse. He declined.
Arista opted not release his father’s album in the same year. In a meeting between Otis ‘Guitar’ Johnson and the managing director, the managing director took great pleasure in citing from behind a sardonic grin that workload was the reason, workload that the success of his son’s album had forced upon the label. This saw the end of Otis’s relationship with Arista. Blood on the boardroom carpet. Murder in the dancehall.
The full beam of fame unsettled then derailed Sonny. The distance growing between father and son was underscored by the wolfish tricks of rejection that captained Otis’ mindset. This floored Sonny worse than the tumult that had made life near impossible for him during the previous recording process. The second of Sonny’s breakdowns, much more severe than the first, dictated the postponement of the remaining dates on his first world tour. He never made it to England. The dates were cancelled when his depression forced him to stare into an abyss that held his gaze and then some.
Sonny took six years to deliver his third, entirely experimental album, light years ahead of its time, an album he titled Untitled. By this time Arista had been sold. The new owners dropped Sonny two days after receiving Untitled’s master tapes. Sonny withdrew completely, became a complete recluse.
In 1981, 82, 83 and 84 there was no news and no music. In 1985 someone heard something, but told no one, so it was again nothing. I was that someone. In 1987 a deranged tourist was arrested for criminal damage, then deported from America after he drew a chalk outline next to Sonny’s star on the Hollywood Boulevard. That was also me. Then, in 1988, more silence, more space. Rumours of the rift, the chasm between father and son, continued to echo in the absence of melody. Many people took Otis’ decision to decline invitations for Sonny to perform with Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones as proof of his jealousy. In fact he was acting for his family, speaking on behalf of his wife who knew to shield their son from the dysfunctions of intense fame. Lucky Sonny. By 1990, he was only a memory for the few and nothing to the many. New artists were reviewed favourably by new reviewers and he was bleached him consciousness. On a visit to the Mission in San Francisco, early in the morning or late at night, I once saw a man of sixty wearing a t-shirt with Sonny Who? printed on the front. Or at least I think I did.
Enter the Thin White Duke: David Bowie. In 1998 with the funds received for selling Bowie Bonds on the London stock exchange, he started a record label and made its fifth release Untitled. There was no press release with the album, just this quote from Bowie: If I met a stranger with two hours to live, I would suggest spending seventy two minutes listening to this album.
Like a dripping stalactite in an underground cave, Untitled gradually became a lost classic, re-found in the ears of a new and different cabal of enthusiasts. This new audience diligently bought his back catalogue when available, outbidding each other for the rarest records sold by dealers who new knew a good thing when they heard it. This voracious audience wanted more information about what this great artist was up to nowadays, but none was available, so they all just assumed he was no longer with us.
Sonny really came into his own when everyone thought he was dead. His modest back catalogue was canonised. Re-edits and remixes were heard on the dancefloors of Ibiza and all major cities. Various compilations of the sessions he played upon were released. Then the well ran dry.
* * *
Otis ‘Guitar’ Johnson died in January 2012, yet even the writers of his numerous obituaries were unable to confirm or deny rumours of his son’s living and breathing status, though they alluded to the rift that the expectations of great art had caused.
Then, out of nowhere, came something unexpected: Sonny Johnson to perform two live shows in London. Blogs were alit. The counters of independent record stores buzzed with questions born out of genuine curiosity. The tickets sold out within 9 hours. Expectations were high.
I was fortunate enough to attend the second show. There is a single Russian word that means at once to purge fear with boldness and to treasure fragility with confidence. Yet even this word: очковтирательство, which has no direct English translation, is insincere or insufficient to explain the symbiotic relationship between Sonny and his band. It was more than need and more than pride, something rare and dignified, rarely seen in public. Sonny’s guitar playing – untouched or accentuated as it was by his years in exile – captivated all to the point of silence. The last notes of individual stanzas were released on the brink of rapture, allowing momentary collective euphoria between artist and audience. Singing with his eyes closed, he’d forgotten many of the lyrics to the album that made his name, as if recalling them was also recalling the abyss that surrounded them. The band understood. Keeping perfect time they looped around his bad memories, only for Sonny to return to the moment unaware of which verse - or what song - to sing. This most audible of shortcomings conspired with gremlins in his amplifier and led most of the reviewers to use the word shambolic. The Twittersphere was alight with pissy salvos, one hundred and forty character character assassinations. Only one broadsheet reviewer understood the link between his difficulties and the difficulties performing the songs from Inchoate Information. The same reviewer commented that Sonny held onto his guitar like a life raft, he was wrong: he held onto it like it was his mother.
My father pushed and pushed until success’ car ran me over. I know about expectation and I know about art. In 1984 I was a much fêted author, a young man who won a prodigious first novel award at an inaugural awards ceremony that’s long since ceased to exist. They said I intoxicated fiction with a new vividness of colour. They saddled me and I bucked. I ran to the brown and lost my best decade to a crippling heroin addiction. In that time my publisher merged, or was merged upon, I never quite found out which because the editor I kept at needle-marked arms length was made redundant by a managing director he never met. I got the bullet too, right between the dilated pupils.
I forgot much in the deep funk of opiates, but not the fact that Sonny had written to me via my American publisher in 1985. By 1986 he had stopped replying. In 1987, I planned to look for him, but my book tour of the West Coast was cut short after a prolonged binge that ended with my arrest for more than just the possession of chalk on the Hollywood Boulevard. The content of those letters eluded me for years. I spent so long strung out that even writing them seemed like something that someone else did. At their heart was, I believe, a discussion of meaning and expression: the meaning of expression and the expression of meaning. I remember one exchange around Huxley’s famous quote ‘after silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music’. Did his proclamation go too far? Does language only limit us to the prescriptive attachments contained within it? Is to be without words sufficient? Or do poetry and music contain a third space, a gap between inferences that provides the inexpressible feeling?
In a period of mass consumption we wondered how long the gap would have to flourish. I know for sure that we wrote about fortunate artists who had the liberty of time to grow and explore, to raise new meaning in music with emotional intelligence. We felt that the ascending Cult of the New was grinning at us with an ever-greatening intensity. He said that the affliction of short attention spans would become omnipotent, that it would move expectations of creativity from the country to the city.
Maybe he was nearly right. It seems that people do want the great artist, but they don’t want to wait for them to grow. People want new old: instant heritage a go-go. They want history, but they want it now. Wearing the emperors’ new clothes and fed upon strap-lines, we’ve been taught to greet gradual steps with ennui, to adore the turn that resides in the future, to keep the wheel turning and to run, run, run. But it’s starting to slow. It’s natural to crave bona fide identity when caught in the triangle of entitlement, instant gratification and the permeating guilt of receiving them both. Maybe we’ve approached a point in history where pop culture’s past has greater velocity that it’s present.
I think Sonny Johnson will be just fine. There are brands that seek to harness and exploit the authenticity he has. They seek only to create a simulacrum of truth, aping the freedom of madness on the open road to give their product a compelling provenance, all to make you buy it. I know this because I’m a copywriter nowadays. I write copy. I provide content for fashion brands and hooky auction houses, adding varnish to the flatly untrue, in order to pay my non-fiction household bills.
But I am a realist. One who realises my chances of reappearance in bookshops is slim. I’m too old to die young and not old enough to be rejuvenated: the ghost of letters in literature’s middle distance. To get the new novel I’ve been writing published perhaps I’ll fake my own death, or follow my mother into suicide. I don’t know which one is which any more, or which one is more profitable.
I could never do it, too in love with words and with music as I am. When you’ve those two supreme components of rejuvenation in your corner, it’s hard to deny the gift of hope. I’ll die old and happy, probably unread but kicking hard against the very last word.
A Yamaha250 awakes you by buzzing around the room.
Only it wasn’t a Yamaha – it was a flying beast,
Unnamed to you.
In the distance, in a language,
a man shouts into a megaphone, he’s selling something.
It could be an ideology; it’s probably watermelon.
You ride a motorbike, here, but not at home.
It’s fucking hot, here, but not at home.
All year LCD and schedules and carpet made of polyester,
Pneumatic doors rheumatic sores and skies made of grey felt,
Your ways, your routes to and from monotony – work.
Your stash of loot for orange seats,
On orange liveried planes with orange staff,
Comedians – or jokers.
I found some sand in my rucksack yesterday.
But departure lounge has departed and so has arrivals hall,
August not so august but June you flaming beauty.
Holidays. Summer holidays. Next year.
This story is taken from my new collection A Large Can of Whoopass which is out now, check awwilde.co.uk for more details.
Andy and Ben are best of friends, kings of banter. Theirs is a steadfast and inseparable kind of friendship that formed in kindergarten and grew on the playgrounds of both primary and secondary schools. The first time Ben went round for tea at someone else’s house was at Andy’s and vice versa. Andy and Ben’s nickname as children, used by both sets of parents, were Alfa and Beta.
Alfa and Beta used to love fish fingers, chips and peas but now it’s cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers. Their families love the great outdoors and often enjoy camping holidays together, enriching fond times in fresh air around roaring campfires.
Andy and Ben are part of a group of teenagers, but it is they who command the most respect within the clan. On occasion, they are cruel to the weaker members of the clan, but this is normal for boys of their age. I use the word clan because they live in Scotland, on the west coast, in an idyllic fishing village surrounded by hilly climbs adored by cyclists, including Ben’s father. It is a beautiful part of the world. The North Atlantic Drift, which starts in Florida, breathes warm air into the local flora and fauna and palm trees grow where palm trees shouldn’t. Travel guides refer to the area as Nature’s Jewellery Box.
Andy and Ben don’t give a shit about nature. They are skateboarders. They like concrete, asphalt and tarmac: the man-made. For them, the best possible use for the trees that populate the hills is as plywood for jump ramps and pulp for paper to print Thrasher Magazine, for which Ben has a subscription. They are the giants of this small skateboarding community. Andy’s father is a carpenter with access to three-ply plywood. After school and every weekend they wheel the ramp he made to a particularly smooth section of coastal road and practice the tricks performed by American skaters in Ben’s magazine. This section of road becomes known as The Spot. The clear waters of the Firth of Clyde will act as the backdrop to the clan’s collective recollection of this formative time. Andy is the first person to land an ollie kick-flip at The Spot. Ben is happy for him, but he is also deeply competitive. The trick eludes him for some time and dents his boyish dignity.
The Spot quickly becomes the place to hang out. Most of the teenagers in the village congregate there and find roles for themselves, as viewers, participants or love interests. Some of the traits and emotions first embarked upon here will echo throughout the lives of the kids far beyond their teenage years, to a time when the term kids is itself a distant echo, and, perhaps, an unspoken promise between two twenty-somethings. It is at The Spot where Ben first sees The Girl and The Girl first sees Andy. She is eating a fig.
The Girl arrives at the start of the six-week summer holidays and to all the boys she looks like the future. Not much is known about The Girl and that’s the way she liked it. The Girl has moved to the village from Edinburgh and will be attending the same school as the clan in September. She is not tall, but not too short either; she has Italian blood, dervish hair and mismatched eyes – left blue, right brown. There is something curious about her skin too. It is clear and fresh, ageless almost.
The Girl’s first few visits to The Spot fan flames in boys’ minds. Facing out to sea with her back to the clan, she thrones herself on an emerald green bench over which her hair cascades. She doesn’t attempt to interact, just reads one Greek tragedy or another, eats figs and draws the boys’ stares towards her like an explosion. At 4pm she floats from the bench, across the grass and along the perimeter of The Spot. The cacophonous sound of skateboard tricks and teenage jive is muted by this parade. Ben thinks she is the most exotic and phosphorescent beauty ever to grace the earth, but his teenage years betray his vocabulary and the feeling she provides in his loins forces one four-letter word from his lips: braw.
On The Girl’s fourth visit to The Spot, Gabrielle, an intermittent member of the clan, extends the hand of friendship to the enigmatic newcomer. Gabrielle discovers that The Girl is quite adept at giving very little away and rarely concludes her sentences.
It is not uncommon for someone new to arrive overnight. Families move around and relocate all the time. The Girl’s arrival, welcomed by the male members of the clan that summer, is made even more mysterious by her coy ways and lack of history. One of the clan has cousins in Edinburgh, near to where The Girl claims to be from, but they’d never heard of this most ravishing beauty. But none of the boys care too much about these mysteries or reasons entwined in her auburn ringlets – the small gorillas growing in their testicles dictate that one of them must win the right to remove her bra. Over the long hot days of no school, The Girl deploys her coquettish charm with nuclear abandon, becomes very popular indeed.
The ollie kick-flip can be a right bastard to learn. To master tricks of this nature, you must first learn a new language – with your toes – and then teach this language to a piece of wood with no brain but a mind of its own. To remain in a place of un-understanding of this language is to suffer a million splendid spaz-attacks in front of your close friends. In life some friends secretly hope you fail. This desire is the result of a tug-of-war between innocence and want. A tug-of-war prevented from turning out as well as hoped because ambition is rarely unadulterated.
Andy is generous with understanding. He spends afternoons coaching Ben on the toe-language of the ollie kick-flip. At The Spot, he skates beside him giving guidance on technique and speed in encouraging tones, sacrificing his own progression to harder tricks. Ben takes the advice through envious teeth, keeps crashing. Then has to leave The Spot early to go to the opticians. The results of his sight test prove him to be long-sighted.
The day that Ben finally lands the ollie kick-flip that has been so spectacularly eluding him is ruined by a tremendous volley of heartbreak. It is as if the god of skateboarding is telling Ben to take up another sport! The day is fluoro-bright. Late August’s sun creates a heat haze and softens the tarmac that forms the surface to The Spot, itself a hive of activity. Teenagers are swimming, mixed groups are playing rounders on the shingle beach and Ben is skating out of his skin. On three consecutive occasions he comes very close to landing the trick, he becomes imbued with focus, delirious almost. As he feels his feet connect with the skateboard deck, he knows it’s good. Everything goes slow motion high definition. His heart quickens. Ben looks up to see if Andy has witnessed his triumph to see The Girl kissing Andy.
The Girl and Andy only break up their smooch as The Cycling Club of Dunoon roar past wearing spectacularly-patterned, vividly-coloured jerseys, most of which are emblazoned with the word Coppi. Ben can only stare at The Girl. He is stained with grey.
It is only natural that The Girl chooses Andy over Ben. Andy is more athletic and better looking. But this doesn’t stop Ben feeling rejected. It festers and leads him into the valley of the doldrums. He spends time in his room, looks out of the window or at the ceiling, throws away seasoned conkers and reads his father’s cycling magazines. He finds out that Coppi is the surname of two steadfast and inseparable brothers, Fausto and Serse, both giants of the cycling community. Tragically, Serse died in Fausto’s arms after crashing in a race they had both been competing in. A race in which Serse sacrificed his own chance of victory in order to help his brother out.
In the kitchen one morning, Ben’s mother is listening to Ken Bruce on Radio 2 and preparing lunch. Ben is hovering by the fridge, wanting to talk but unable to find the words to do so. Sensing this, his mother asks if he’s OK. She has already noticed his spark has vanished of late. Ben recounts a jumble of awkward feelings. Listening intently and speaking in calm, gentle tones, she offers sanguine advice about not forcing affairs of the heart. She is a strong believer in fate and proves to be something of a sage. As their heart-to-heart is reaching its end Phil Collins’s ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ spills from the radio and they both laugh. Ben’s mother gives him a cuddle, tells him that she loves him and that he’ll get over The Girl.
The rest of summer is unusually hot and turbulent for the best friendship of Andy and Ben. They spend less time together, and their position at the centre of the clan gradually dissolves. Andy and The Girl make the most of the longer nights and Andy tries hard to loose his cumbersome virginity. Ben feels his best friend has taken The Girl he adores from him and that the The Girl he adores has taken his best friend away too. It’s difficult.
Spectacularly failing to understand that old maxim, A Closed Mouth Gathers No Foot, Ben makes a series of sly insults about Andy behind his back and fosters a schism in the clan. When Andy and Ben do skate together it’s not like before. Andy puts Ben down in public and the clan laugh at Ben’s expense as he fails to learn new trick variations. To her credit, The Girl never joins in and openly discourages Andy from such cruelty. The clocks go forward. Leaves clog drains. The sea becomes choppy.
Two December days after Ben hears that Andy and The Girl had a screaming match in public, The Girl knocks on the door of Ben’s parents’ house. Ben’s father answers the door wearing his cycling gear and shouts upstairs for Ben to come down: You’ve Got Company, he says. It is bitterly cold as Ben and The Girl talk on the front step and the conversation is awkward, but this is mainly because Ben’s father is readying his bicycle in the garage within earshot. As Ben’s father makes his way down the gravel drive, Ben notices that the word Coppi is printed on the back of his father’s jersey.
The Girl suggests to Ben that they should walk to The Spot. He agrees. On the way there she holds his hand and tells him that Andy is unbearable. And that she thinks she made a mistake choosing Andy over him. He can’t take his eyes off her or believe his luck. Distracted by hopes crashing from his subconscious into his hands, he tries to listen carefully. He chooses to hear just enough to start a fire. Then they kiss, inhale each other, and pull close lambswool and sweatshirt cotton. Lost in a tryst, the lashing storm offshore doesn’t even register. They snog for hours or minutes; it’s not important which. Then he walks her home as if his teenage life depends upon it.
The next morning has come, and Ben has hardly slept. The wind was making grand speeches all night, and such was his excitement, serious shut-eye proved impossible. He rises unnaturally early and heads straight to The Spot to relive the night before. Amidst the winds of the North Atlantic Drift he can taste her breath. This is it. He is sure. Rain and seawater from the storm gathers in puddles and forms a patina on the smooth surface of the asphalt. Ben stands with his left foot on his skateboard, gazes out to sea along the rugged coastline. He is mirrored in the water on the asphalt, viewing the world upturned. Ben catches sight of his reflection, gently moves his skateboard and watches as ebbing ripples dissolve him from view.
When Ben arrives at the school gates, grand larceny has been committed on his tender heart. Andy and The Girl are walking arm in arm and she is wearing his blue parka. They make love eyes at each other. Ben can’t work it out. He skips tutorial, sobs stupid tears in the disabled toilet. Andy is guilty of larceny, he reasons, but The Girl is still grand.
During the morning’s French lesson, Ben sits behind Andy and stares a hole in the back of his head. On the back page of his exercise book, Ben writes down all that The Girl said to him last night, lines of dialogue in Bic and white. Constellations of words on ruled paper, some joined-up and flowing, others heavily lined in jagged uppercase. Some of these words match his feelings to the events of the night before. Others are inconclusive. But nowhere between speech marks on that piece of paper is the line from her that goes Andy and I are finished.
The foreign language spoken by the teacher floats around the classroom. Palms on temples, elbows on desk, Ben stares into the engraved graffiti on the desktop: football chants, playground slander about school discos, names of couples encased in hearts shot through with arrows. Ben had meant every word he had said to The Girl, he’d said them a thousand times before – always alone, always to her. The night was a realisation of his feelings for her, valuable, highly charged. The fact that this encounter clearly didn’t matter to her doesn’t matter to him. Struggling to understand if the words on the page – or the experience – are real, he finally burns through the front of Andy’s head and sees a bad way out.
If what is real is undefined and nebulous then why not lie to get what you really want? Ben wants The Girl. Wants The Girl for good, for better and is prepared to do the worst to get her. He keeps the tryst and kissing and pulling of hips a secret, deposits his upset in box marked Machiavellian.
Gabrielle, the intermittent member of the clan, was intermittent because she didn’t really understand the fickle dynamics of popularity. Gabrielle was too straightforward for most teenagers to grasp. She did things because she wanted to do them, liked people for her own reasons. She adored Andy, so much so that behind the rack seating in the assembly hall at a school disco, he fingered her for fifteen minutes straight. Or four slow dances, depending on which version of the story was told. And the story was told, not by Andy, but by the members of the clan who watched the fingering between the gaps in the rack seating. For Gabrielle, Andy is a dreamboat on a skateboard, a mountain of popularity she has never got close enough to.
With enough deceit to poison the well of teenage friendship, Ben tells Gabrielle that Andy still has feelings for her. And with the very same mendacious mouth starts a rumour about Andy and Gabrielle in an unlit bus shelter on the very night he had been with The Girl. Over the course of a week, the rumour takes on a life of its own, grows horned details, and skulks around the playground in search of new anoraks to call home. When Monday comes, Ben suggests to Gabrielle that she write Andy a note, and even offers to pass it on for her. Kind and considerate: cupid Ben. With a swipe of a metal rule between frame and door, he breaks into Andy’s locker and places the note in Andy’s blue parka, the very jacket The Girl likes to wear.
Much of what happened next is easy to tell and at odds with many of the complexities of love. The Girl finds the note, hears the rumour and turns up at Ben’s door in quick succession. His plan seems to have worked. Getting what he wants unseats his feelings of rejection. The Girl and Ben’s relationship, awkward at first, blooms after a showdown at The Spot in which Ben challenges Andy to a fight, only for him to refuse, then exclaim for all to hear that The Girl isn’t worth it. The brotherly bond that once seemed unbreakable sinks in the clear waters off the coast of The Spot. Ben stops skating for good.
Between A Level results and driving tests, kids become not kids any more. By the next summer the clan itself disbands. The Girl and Ben live in each other’s pockets and feel they have outgrown village life. They move to Edinburgh at Ben’s suggestion in their nineteenth year to find work: to embark on a new shared life.
Ben never mentions Andy: the ploughman never looks back.
* * *
Thirteen years have passed. The Girl and Ben broke up four years ago, which came as a total shock to half of their new circle of friends, but not to the wise reader. This circle of friends had only known them as a couple. For the Girl and Ben they assumed a succession of tiny steps towards parenthood and a later life further enriched with grandchildren visiting a stone cottage somewhere on the coast. Ben too kept this version of their shared future in his heart.
The first four years of their time together did much to suggest that they could become as close as Ben hoped. However, there was for Ben always an emotional gap with The Girl, although he tried not to think about it. He had only confided this fear with his mother. She had told him to talk with The Girl about it and to trust his instincts. The emotional gap could be his own, she said. The Girl may not require the same closeness as he. Coming from his mother, who had a strong sense of the way things should be, this view seemed sound and trustworthy. But he never did discuss the gap or what lay in it with The Girl – chose to subsume it internally. On the nights she was allowed to stay over, feeling flushed and lying naked under the covers was when he felt closest to her. A place of their own in the big city held plenty of possibilities.
Their first flat in Edinburgh smelt of damp. They moved after six months and spent a summer furnishing the new place from flea markets and antique fairs. On Sunday’s they would rise early and look for objets d’art in and around the city. The Girl had a thing for purple and Ben grew to like it too. He joked that the flat resembled a Byzantine love nest and The Girl loved this idea of romance in another time. Without fail they would stop for Sunday lunch each week. Gorging themselves on meat, wine, cheese and the newspapers was something of a birthright to their Edinburgh life: a bona fide treat before they went back to work. It was in the handful of pubs close to their flat that they formed a new clan.
In the years that followed, life settled into an entirely pleasurable routine of work and weekends. New friendships were cemented both as a couple and individually. This new clan coined new nicknames based on experiences at music festivals, style choices and eating habits. Ben became the Benmeister on account of his fondness for strong German lager and would regale the group with tales of what a good skater he was back in the day whilst drunk. Exaggerated stories in which Andy’s tricks became his. Stories in which Andy was Tippexed from view.
Then, late on in The Girl and Ben’s twenties, one of the couples pulled out an ultrasound image and announced over Sunday lunch that they were expecting. They may as well have been expecting a bomb. Very gradually and one by one, half of the couples began to unravel in the face of that three-month baby scan.
Unbeknownst to Ben, The Girl had fabricated a team-bonding work trip to Aberdeen and aborted their first child in a clinic two months previously. The records she picked on the pub jukebox sang of melancholic longing or violent disruption – it was Joni Mitchell or Joy Division and nothing else but. Ben knew the cellar door was opening on him, but instead of discussing the return of her aloof nature, he wanted to know when they would be trying for kids. The Girl would never engage in such talk; just bit her lip till her eyes watered. In the bathroom Ben hid her contraception. In the bedroom they stopped having sex. The gap that Ben never addressed opened up and The Girl grew distant. Ben delivered superlatives about a daughter with her mother’s eyes in the dead of night, The Girl made fake sleep noises. Three months of decline and getaway plans followed.
Ben arrived home to a Dear John letter on a Thursday night. Two pages of I’m sorry and I’ll never make you happy. This was the life she had chosen but it was not the one that she wanted. She needed closeness! Fucking cheek of it! Two pages for twelve years. Three years per side of watermarked A5. Don’t try and find me, she said. He didn’t. He couldn’t leave the flat for a week. Surrounded by purple with a heart as blue as a baboon’s arse.
It took Ben four years and another disastrous relationship to enjoy his own company. Even now his heart is still bruised and diminished of capacity. He is single, enjoys reading and the internet and loves cycling: a sport his father suggested he take up to beat the blues. These pleasures align on eBay, where he spends more time than he should, prowling for vintage bike parts and accessories, clicking links and reading articles on great cyclists and classic cycle races. One day he hopes to attend L’Eroica, the vintage cycle race in Italy. Ben still lives on the outskirts of Edinburgh, in a different flat. It’s a nice place, but the coastal roads and dramatic scenery of his west coast home have become prevalent in his dreams of late. Ben returns home on the weekends to visit his parents regularly. He always takes his bike. It’s his pride and joy.
On one such weekend the conditions are perfect for cycling: blue skies blotted with wispy clouds and no more than a little wind rolling in from the Firth of Clyde. Ben’s father’s health is deteriorating and his legs are no longer fit for the hills. He suggests to his son a rewarding route that includes a place to stop for lunch. On the road Ben’s pace is brisk. He becomes mesmerized with the rhythm of pedalling and the scenery, the rhythm of pedalling and the thoughts of childhood. He stops only to refresh himself in the many streams that run alongside the roads. He passes many other cyclists and few cars. Food is fuel and the needle is hovering just above the red. Ben checks his father’s map: nine miles till lunch. He rests his bike against the whitewashed and weathered stone wall of the pub. He places the order, a ploughman’s and a pint, and pays for the food. As he leaves the pub the glare of the sun is ferocious and causes white flecks on the periphery of his vision. When his eyes adjust to the brilliant daylight he catches sight of a man admiring his bike. The man turns around, it is Andy.
Are you, said Andy, still stirring my porridge?
Go shit yourself, says Ben. There is then a hesitant pause suggesting that this could go one way or another. Then raucous laughter and a firm handshake.
Sometimes in life things happen at a specific time in a specific place with a specific set of circumstances acting as a backdrop. Some people call this fate, but not Andy or Ben: they call it good fortune. Andy is also an ex-skater cyclist. They discover that they both took up cycling around the same time. They share not only a passion for a vintage racing cycles, but a similar aesthetic. They share a few jars in that glorious beer garden in full bloom, and cycle back together via The Spot. No kick-flips, just chain rings.
They meet at Andy’s house the very next weekend. It’s another hot one, Scorchio says Ben as Andy opens the front door. As they ready the bikes in the garage, Ben notices a jiffy bag with an Italian postmark. He recognises the handwriting instantly. Inside the bag is a Suicide Shifter (a gear lever to you and me), extremely rare, but also exactly the same one that Ben lost in an eBay auction two weeks previously. Ben and Andy suddenly realise they have been outbidding each other for bike parts, and not just this one either. They laughed out loud at the esoteric nature of this coincidence. The day is a triumph.
In the house he grew up in, Ben has trouble sleeping that night. He comes downstairs, opens the fridge and lets the light shine out into the darkness of the kitchen. He cools himself in front of the fridge, and then wanders throughout the downstairs looking at family photos in silver frames, then returns to and remains restless in bed until fatigue temporarily defeats the incessant whirring of his brain. In the semitranslucence of dawn, he dreams he is cycling alone through the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by rolling hills in every distant direction. There is no sun, yet it is lustrously bright and his racer in British racing green refracts light in diamond shards. Above him, there is an endless supply of uninterrupted sky in Yves Klein blue. Below and in front, the white gravel track stretches out offering a clear view to a distant vanishing point – the brow of a hill. There is again the hypnotic rhythm of motion: the supreme feeling of cycling, of his legs and his breathing, the distilled movement of his body, all working together, aligned by the symmetry and beauty of the land that engulfs him. He looks from the sky to the ground, from blue to white and white to blue and back again. Everything he knows about the life of a cyclist implies perpetual movement, yet his unchanged distance from the vanishing point tells him he’s not making any ground. Almond-shaped droplets of sweat fall in rivulets from beneath his cassquette and down his forehead, a film of chalky dust covers his tyres, the sweat lands upon it and the obsidian darkness of vulcanised rubber momentarily bursts through.
Olive trees, rows and rows of olive trees, muscular branches in rude health line the gravel track on both sides. There is the smell of blossom. It is potent and alluring and everywhere. He stops pedalling, coasts for a moment, breathes deeply, takes in the rarefied air of farmers and artists and poets and the sound of the chain rings on his bike is almost symphonic, small individual noises – from small individual mechanical parts – hint at a melody that he completes in his head, an intricate melody that completely transfixes him and removes him from the moment.
When he returns, he is closer to the vanishing point; on the brow of the hill he can just make out two figures waving to him from beneath a tree at the edge of a dense wood, he feels recognition with every sense in his body other than sight, he knows them but he doesn’t know them, he doesn’t know why he must reach them, just knows that he must.
He pedals harder. They move further away.
He coasts. They reappear.
They call him by name. He pedals in explosive bursts and coasts in deep breaths and comes closer, closer still. It is a woman and a child. Both are wearing matching delicate white lace dresses. The tree provides them with welcome shade, brown hair cascades down and obscures their faces. Like a gift, the child wears a green bow around her waist. Ben not longer needs to pedal. He lays down his bike. The woman waves and darts into the woods, auburn ringlets flailing behind her, she looks back moving her hair from her face and motioning the child towards Ben in one fluid movement. The Child walks towards Ben, holds out her impossibly gentle hands and offers him a fig.
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’
With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,
And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.
And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.
O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.
And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.
For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
‘Thou art God, and Law, and King.
'We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’
Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud
Whispering - ‘Thou art Law and God.’ -
Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’
And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.
For he knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.
So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament
When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:
'My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!
‘He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me -
Misery, oh, Misery!’
Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses’ feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.
When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak and frail
Like the vapour of a vale:
Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky
It grew - a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.
On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning’s, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.
With step as soft as wind it passed,
O’er the heads of men - so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked, - but all was empty air.
As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.
And the prostrate multitude
Looked - and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:
And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.
A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose
As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother’s throe
Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood, -
As if her heart had cried aloud:
'Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.’