Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (and other stuff)

I read it in a day.

Ok, it’s not the heaviest tome, and maybe it doesn’t have the smallest font.

But still.

Read it in a day. It is a lovely book.

Somebody on Twitter suggested recently that a book review should never be about the reviewer. It would somehow became less worthy and lacking in literary qualities. I get that, but I like writing my blog in such a way that it feels like I’m creating a memoir. Each tale of running adventure offering a peek through the curtains into moments of my life, I simply enjoy writing like this. When it comes to the books we read, they often hold a mirror up to our own stories. And a memoir like Anderson’s also points me back to a certain time in my life. So please forgive me the indulgence!

Besides, as author Zadie Smith puts it (in Intimations), writing is basically talking to yourself but then allowing yourself to be overheard.

Listen in if you fancy.

The founder and singer of the band Suede, Brett Anderson has always had a mysterious, almost aloof persona, especially if the music press are to be believed. Coal Black Mornings actually charts Anderson’s early life (taking us from childhood to the time when said music press started to really notice them), through adolescence as it drifted towards adulthood. I guess in today’s vernacular, Anderson and his fellow creatives and dreamers would be accused of being from the ‘metropolitan elite’. The truth is a tale of somewhat less privilege than we’d been led to believe.

I was in Bedford in those heady days of British music back in the early 90s and had the pleasure of writing for a naively ambitious music magazine, Splinter. I brought my rocking roots to the publication as others introduced me to more obscure underground music and we all had a love of finding original live acts who we could champion.

Obviously Suede were on our radar as we clung to the coat tales of the NME and Melody Maker, trying to promote the cause of bands from Bedfordshire and Northants who we reckoned could compete with this wave of guitar fuelled indie music filling the jukeboxes.

I hold my hand up to having made my impressions of Brett Anderson based around the press I consumed. But also, of course, through the extraordinary music they made. That first album still gets a regular airing in the van as I drive around South Devon doing my ‘day job’. I guess I always imagined his androgynous stage presence (a bit like how I consumed Jarvis Cocker from Pulp) to be derived from a spoiled home counties up bringing, the swagger having an arrogance to it.

In fact, Anderson’s upbringing was more like mine; straightforward with very defined household roles. This ordinariness combined with the bespoke quirks I’ve know doubt every family can boast, I recognise this only too well. The seemingly effortless poetic use of language in Coal Black Mornings paints this domestic scene so vividly and in such colour, it had me at the dinner table with the Andersons.

.. a sense that his mood could suddenly, capriciously sour and the house would be plunged into a strange, dark theatre of Pinteresque tension.

Anderson describing his father’s sometimes ominous presence.

It is hardly surprising that this book seems to only feature beautiful phrases. It is a feast of subtle yet somehow expansive descriptions of everything from clothes and their place in the author’s early life to the debris and the bric-a-brac the adventurous youth found on abandoned waste dumps.

The writing is mature and classy but certainly not daunting. There is humility and some darkly self depreciating passages. Despite this, Anderson accepts that some of lyrical creations were (and are) quite beyond anything his peers were achieving at the time. He presented us, then through his lyrics, and now in this book, with snippets of his world through his far from predictable word play. The book joins all of those dots, puts reason to the rhyme.

Claiming to be happy to avoid the “primary colours of party politics”, Anderson still manages to be wonderfully acerbic when the mood takes.

..John Major’s irrelevant, dreary, Tory world of unemployment and cut-price lager and crap boy bands.

For those of us who gave our own peers knowing looks when we first heard those extraordinary riffs on Suede’s eponymous debut, it is great to read that Anderson himself was initially in awe of Bernard Butler (Suede’s original lead guitarist). It must have been breath-taking to be in the room when songs like Animal Nitrate first riffed and rolled into existence.

The music was over-simplistic until Bernard wrote a breath-taking guitar – gnarled, twisted, winding and almost Eastern in flavour, it utterly transformed the song and turned it into a slinky, prowling beast that melted into a terrifying maelstrom of raging noise.

Anderson’s humble nod to Butler’s guitar on ‘He’s Dead’

Is the book for those who have no feeling for, or recollection of Suede? Is it for those who were either not yet born, or already middle aged in the early 90’s? Is this poignant memoir for those who are indifferent to music at all? The answer to all of these is yes, of course. At it’s simplest, Coal Black Mornings is a story, from birth to finding his calling, of an extraordinary yet believable young man.

Anderson doesn’t delve too much into the years that follow Suede’s initial impact, or the huge successes, the world tours, gold discs and high profile disintegration of relationships and departures. This keeps the story at ground level. The fears, the mistakes, the fumbling through adolescence and the atmosphere of childhood are all relatable. Except of course, unsaid but constantly present, is the knowledge that here was somebody who could achieve so much with his art.

I’ve read too many memoirs of the rich and famous where I find myself flicking pages as some overly self-important sports star or musician tells me how great and successful they are. Coal Black Mornings could not be further from those ghost written hardbacks which appear in WH Smiths in October ready for us to wrap up for our parents’ Christmas present.

It is a pocket rocket of a book. A rat-a-tat rhythm to the prose keeps the pages turning but not without savouring every word. Anderson is an artisan with words. He moulds and crafts. Sometimes phrases are so simply beautiful yet I know, as a wanna-be scribbler I’d be chuffed to create prose a tenth as good.

When I was playing a very average guitar, in Totnes band New Shapes, clinging on to the pace of songs I’d helped write, my fellow musicians delivering effortlessly perfect timing as I chased the chords around the fretboard, it was enough to see one punter tap their foot as they supped their beer and regarded us as the curiosities we probably were.

Similarly, as I talk out loud, I’m humbled if any of you are still listening.

Onwards.

The Tooth Fairy And Matt Haig

If the words “tooth” and “fairy” have placed a warm cuddly, call-the-cute-police image in your mind, soothing, calming and reassuring memories of those little traditions of childhood we cling to; the innocence and the trusting of our younger years, then I’m afraid I’m going to shatter your inner peace.


Try and imagine a pile of broken glass lying on a concrete road, then (bear with me on this) place a microphone next to the pile and connect to a pair of noise cancelling headphones. Ready? Now close your eyes and try and hear a car tyre slowly driving over the pile, grinding it further into the ground. Now place your clenched fist hard against the back of your jaw and push hard. The harder you push, the louder the glass gets crushed.


This was no milk tooth falling out to be placed delicately under the pillow as I drifted off to sleep in my fluffy pyjamas, cuddling my pet Sky Blues elephant (it even had the club badge sewn into its side).


Nope.


After the first infection developed under the offending tooth, timed perfectly with every single dental surgery (like everything else) closing down back in March, I’ve battled toothache. But, shut the back door, the last two weeks have been horrendous. Eye wateringly painful. Sleep denying agony. Obviously, this has been helped enormously by the tropical night time temperatures.


So, after five days of telephone consultations I found myself nervously loitering outside the dentists’ shop front in Union Street in Torquay. The glitzy, high end window display of the dentist felt rather out of place amongst the nail bars, boarded up shops and old school cafes of the upper stretches of Torquay town. As all walks of life were gathering at the line of bus stops and taxi ranks in front of me, I started to become as self conscious as I was anxious. Standing in my supermarket uniform, fresh from a shift which I had completed without pain killers as I was unsure whether taking them would prevent any treatment taking place, I didn’t know whether I looked like I simply needed the toilet as I rocked from foot to foot, or perhaps I was the world’s least discreet drug dealer. 


After what felt like long enough for the firebrand sunlight to raise my temperature above the threshold for being treated, I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or terrified when a friendly, bemasked dental nurse beckoned me indoors.


I passed the temperature test and was led directly to the executioner’s chair. I’ll save you (and me) the details. And no, I was neither offered, nor asked for the offending tooth. What does happen to such delightful remnants of a life well lived? Actually, I don’t want to know, I’m sure it’s not just popped into the bin with the dentist’s apple core and hummus tub.


My wonderful wife Nicky had thankfully insisted that she drive me and after a brief dribbling call to tell her the deed had been done, the Mini pulled up amongst the Iceland and Argos bags waiting for taxis and I gingerly lowered myself in.


The pain had played havoc with my running ambitions over the previous couple of weeks and I was now resigned to a few days of further down time for my trainers as I recovered from what was starting to feel like a few slaps from Anthony Joshua.


As Nicky blitzed a banana into a bowl of natural yoghurt, I sat in the window nursing my tingling and sore jaw, marveling at just how wonderful my life truly is with this remarkable lady. My recovery would be fine, and I didn’t have toothache! 


That night I was, for the first time in a while, glad to lay my head on the pillow and looked forward to a few hours of sleep. The tooth fairy never crossed my mind (not least because I was thankfully not in possession of the feckin’ tooth anymore). Little did I know that Nicky did indeed have a ‘who’s a brave boy’ tooth fairy style treat lined up for me. 


I remember (do I actually remember? Let’s pretend I do for a minute) placing milk teeth under my pillow as a child and getting excited that there might be a sixpence (which by then was worth two and half new pence) in its place in the morning. This was significant because at the time it would have bought me a packet of football cards. While many were after Kevin Keegan and Mick Channon, I was hoping for Coventry City legends Ian Wallace, Mick Ferguson and Chris Catlin. 


I don’t suppose our grandchildren will be so easily satisfied. A mere coin might not cut it anymore. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s youngsters are only willing to sacrifice their little white treasures in return for a stretch Limousine with six of their friends, a few games of ten pin bowling and a good old Maccy Dees nosh up. Although I’m not sure how we’ll get all that under the pillow? Maybe they’ll settle for a fiver?


What, I here you bleat, has all of this got to do with Matt Haig?

A thing of beauty

In the absence of running, I enjoyed a walk with Charlie before work yesterday (Charlie being our faithful Border Terrier). When I returned there was a parcel tucked behind the gate.

With my name on it. Book shaped. How very exciting.

Nicky had hinted that the tooth fairy had been on the internet and found a surprise for me. And here it was.

I resisted the urge to tear it open and waited for Nicky to get home before, well, tearing it open. Those that know us and anyone who’s read my previous blogs will know we do love our books. You’ll also understand why, as the box revealed its contents; a signed, hardback first edition of Matt Haig’s latest novel, The Midnight Library. There must have been something in my eye, and I was certainly, at least momentarily, stuck for words.

It’s no secret that Nicky and I took extra measures, especially because of my job, to shield her from any potential exposure to Covid-19. It would be foolish to pretend that during those weeks in March and April we hadn’t been fearful. In May, my employer had given me the green light to ‘shield’ for some weeks. Up until then we were living ‘together apart’ and it definitely played havoc with my mental health. Well, Matt Haig was certainly one of the voices I turned to for comfort in those times. Not only is he a writer of beautiful novels and life affirming nonfiction, he is somebody I both relate to and draw comfort in ‘following’.

His, for want of a better word, humanity is so acutely observational, eloquently expressed and is grounded in a true belief that we should all be living as one community which is constantly looking out for each other. We should all have the opportunities to express ourselves adn chase our dreams, regardless of our background or place in society.

The new book is a thing of actual beauty just to look at and hold, and I can’t wait to start turning the pages.

Before that though, I need to get to London with Stuart Maconie. I’m lapping up his account of retracing the steps, 80 years on, of The Jarrow Crusade in his powerful, almost battle cry of a memoir, Long Road From Jarrow. We’re currently in Bedford, one of my old stomping grounds, having passed through a few public houses I frequented back in the day, particularly in Nottingham. 

So my recovery continues, I managed a hard fought 10 miles on the coast path this morning, falling well short of my hoped for mileage but I’m sure my body is still reeling from the physical and emotional assault of the last couple of weeks. 

the coast path – beautiful despite my struggle to run it today

The epic ultra marathon I had hoped to be tackling in October has been cancelled. Understandable of course, but it did leave me without a short term goal for my running. I have decided to create my own one man ultra marathon which I am now officially in training for!

In other news, the grandchildren are now back ‘in da house’ and the new sofa has no trouble in hosting the 6 of us!

With the comforting feeling that the tooth fairy really was looking out for me, onward we go……

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Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY

A Brexit Essay by Kevin Bonfield

“Independence day! It’s fucking independence day!” I’m sure he actually did a little jump of joy as he repeated himself, adding “We get our fucking country back.”

There’s a burning inside my head. It’s not tears, they’ve been and gone. I can feel the heat in my face, there’s something thundering around my body, my heart won’t settle, somehow frozen, yet burning, burning. I think it’s rage. Rage. I’ll call it rage, I’ve never had such a barrage of heat and shuddering fury. And it’s pure instinct, I have no control over this.

I finally find my voice, “Did you vote?”
“Never do mate, they’re all fucking corrupt.” My workmate is so animated.
“But, you’re passionately celebrating the result?”
“Fucking am, why aren’t you fucking happy? No more immigrants clogging up our fucking NHS and stuff.”
“I’m not sure that’s what the referendum was about but……”

A month earlier, I’m in a chip shop. With my father. We’ve ordered four pieces of cod, two large chips, mushy peas and curry sauce. “So, will you be voting to leave?” He surprises me with the question. Whilst I’m pretty sure he’s goading me, I offer a mumbled, non-committal reply.
“That Boris Johnson is such a man of the people” he says, “I can’t see them losing.”
I just wanted to cry.

I still do.