An Ode to the Travellers

Can I say a few things before I start here?

1. I'm really not very good around people. People tend to make me feel ill at ease and estranged. It's only natural.

2. At many and varied times in my life I have suffered from various nauseas. I suffer shop nausea and I suffer from club nausea. I may not be living a Sartre novel but nonetheless I feel an intense discomfort from these things. They cut me deep.

3. I never seem able to see the point in anything very much. This might be more existentialist thought but I doubt it.

4. I really am a bore about so many things.

So it's a standard Friday night. As standard as Friday nights can be when you are close to thirty-four and on the start of a half term holiday. There is something strange and strangely comforting about still getting excitement from school holidays.

At half past four I am home and opening a bottle of Jack Daniels, which I pour into cups of coffee. I break open also the Magnetic Fields CDs and sit to read my email. I read mail that says nothing very much, as is normal, and I read some mail that means a great deal. The ones that mean a great deal are oddly meaningless, dealing with the phonetics of Pop group names. I find such things comforting.

Much later I am sitting in a noisy bar feeling detached from both my present and my past. I feel immobilised and irrelevant, completely invisible and inert. I am a gas, floating in the air and lost in the cigarette smoke. Names and faces pass. I feel nothing. I miss my future because I don't even recognise it when it whispers in my ear. It has always been thus.

I climb stairs and stand in a shell of a space where noise blasts on my ears. I half recognise a song I only ever half-heartedly cared for four years ago and stand at a bar. I give someone I barely know more than enough money to buy drinks for my friends and ignore the possibility of receiving anything back simply because it is too much hassle and I cannot bear to pretend I can hear what anyone might say to me. I suffer the pangs of nausea and know that barely five minutes after climbing the stairs the only recourse is to descend the same stairs and leave by the same door. I think, as I descend the stairs, that I have just paid too much money to come close to tears. I could have stayed at home, listened to the Magnetic Fields, drunk my Jack Daniels and reached the same end point. It seems such a perpetual waste.

Walking home, I hear a sound filling the High Street. It is the sound of ringing strings repeating a melody that spirals and sings in the cold February air. It is electric and acoustic all at once and it makes me feel peculiar. I have to turn and find out what the source is, and the source is perfectly banal; a man with a mandolin amplified through a tiny Orange amp, outside Stead & Simpson. It feels like a purge. I leave a ten pound note in the mans basket, and load the two pence pieces he has already gathered on top to stop the paper blowing away in the wind. The man looks down and looks genuinely surprised. He thanks me and passes me a cassette. He says it is a present. I smile mutely back and walk on.

The mandolin echoes off the stone Cathedral walls, and even later as I turn into my street I am sure I can hear the sound spark off the red bricks of the terraces. I think of the man with the mandolin and how the only way I can bring happiness to anyone in this world is by giving them money. I know what it is to be empty.

I am thinking of angels.

Jack Kerouac wrote a book called Desolation Angels and it changed my life. It's very sad and clichˇd to say that reading Kerouac changed your life, and there's some middle class educated normality built around the concept that everyone reads On The Road at 16 and is touched and moved to leave the nest and discover the world out at large. I think this is bollocks to be honest, but I'm probably wrong because I usually am. Douglas Coupland takes some gentle digs at this whole Kerouac culture thing in his new book Miss Wyoming, but that's okay because Coupland is one of those middle class educated types who can afford to laugh at themselves because there is so little risk in doing so. I can't blame such people for that, and I can't even hate them for it because that would mean having to hate myself. Which actually isn't that difficult but is another story entirely.

On The Road didn't mean a great deal to me. Dharma Bums meant less. But Desolation Angels was the real thing, the one that connected, the one that made the real romantic sense. It was the sense of isolation that meant a lot, and whenever I type that word I hear the Joy Division song in my head, and that's either good or sad, I can never decide which.

Sometime in the 1980s The June Brides recorded a song called 'Enemies', and it was marvellous. Of course the song was originally recorded by the Radiators From Space, and it begins with the line 'Desolation Angels in the junkyard of lies'. The song was written by Phil Chevron, who later joined The Pogues and wrote more allegedly fine songs, but to be honest I'd lost interest and I always thought The Pogues were at their finest before they became a tragicomic self parody. I used to say that Red Roses For Me was a classic Soul album; I said it then to annoy a lot of people but I'll say it again now because I think it's true. It's also a classic Pop album, because you don't get much more Pop than 'Dark Streets Of London' if you accept that classic Pop is about memory and the struggle for personal identity against the odds of a modern world. Later The Pogues recorded 'A Pair Of Brown Eyes', and like The Nips' 'Gabrielle' it's a fantastic moment of doomed existential Pop.

I'm not very good, despite my claim at being a fully qualified bore, at remembering details about things. For example I know many people who would be able to tell you about the use of mandolins in Pop, but I'm not one of them. You might thank your lucky stars for that, but not too quickly because I will now tell you that one moment I do recall is the Smiths' 'Please Please Please Let Me Get Me What I Want', a song that featured Johnny Marr tweaking a mandolin and that famously featured for a second in the John Hughes movie Pretty In Pink. Hughes made some appallingly facile movies and that of course was the point because they so perfectly summed up what it was to be a teenager in the '80s, and although you could argue that it all meant nothing if you grew up in the UK, you'd be wrong because you'd be missing the points of what makes Pop and being a teenager so desperate and desperately fantastic. There was something desperate about The Smiths at their peak of course, and it was somehow both depressing and fantastic that they should be featured on the soundtrack of a Molly Ringwald movie alongside New Order, whose fabulous 'Shellshock' was also used, although really it should have been 'Thieves Like Us'. These days it seems like every movie has a soundtrack album to accompany it, regardless of scale and stature. The very excellent Welcome To The Dollhouse featured a Future Bible Heroes song on the soundtrack album and it was a great disappointment to realise it never actually made it into the movie, not even in a 'Please Please' echoing moment you'd miss if you blinked. Or whatever the aural equivalent might be. Future Bible Heroes of course feature Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson, and whilst we're on The Magnetic Fields again, LD Beghtol chose to perform the Psychedelic Furs' 'Pretty In Pink' at a recent Three Terrors show at the Knitting Factory in New York, LD being, in case you wanted reminding, one of the vocalists on The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs collection. Stephin Merritt was also in the Three Terrors show (the third vocal 'terror' of the show being Dudley Klute) and chose, amongst others, to perform 'Seasons In The Sun', a song recently cruelly beaten thoroughly by the Boyzone nasal assault team, but co-written originally it seems by Jacques Brell and recorded in the '70s I think by Terry Jacks, who I recall was Canadian, and whose name I too often confuse with Brian Jacks, who of course was a Judo champion as well as the scourge of all-comers in the Superstars TV series. Merritt of course played the mandolin at the Three Terrors show, and his song '100,000 Fireflies' starts with the line 'I have a mandolin, I play it all night long. It makes me want to kill myself'

I told you I was a bore.

I wasn't thinking of any of those things when I heard the mandolin on the High Street, but I was thinking of the Desolation Angels: I was thinking that either the man by Stead & Simpson was one, or I was, or we both were, or neither of us were. In all honesty it is always unlikely to be me because I am so horribly bourgeois and full of the tense hang-ups of the generation with no root; the lost '80s spectre who missed all the points, and all the points in between, although again that's another story entirely and now is not the time, although it is very probably the place because let's face it, as with this one, who else is likely to publish such a story?

© Alistair Fitchett 2000


Several days later I look at the mandolin man's tape. It is called An Ode To The Travellers and I will never listen to it. This much should be obvious.