Found myself in a strange townThough I've only been here for three weeks now
I've got blisters on my feet
Trying to find a friend in Oxford Street
Growing up a half hour's journey outside of London often means you grow up with a fascination for the place. During my childhood visits to museums, galleries and the zoo were commonplace. By the time I was fifteen I was regularly going up there by myself. Trains were quick and easy and life was different and, yes, exciting. However, I never really wanted to move there.
I stayed there often enough with friends that had moved there, often for extended periods. A good friend of mine from school mostly lived in Kensington at his girlfriend's house. Why wouldn't you? Her parents were loaded and had a huge house. They were always away on their island in Scotland or in America sorting things out for the family oil business.
As I've often written about before, my main area of operation was around Charing Cross Road, Denmark Street and the pubs around Soho Square. The Marquee Club was in Wardour Street and I spent much of my time there. I loved eating cheaply in Greek restaurants and drinking in the Nelly Dean in the next road along. By the time I had some money to spare in my late teens early twenties, guitar shops become as important a haunt as the record shops I frequented.
However, back at home in Stevenage I often prefered to be out in the woods and fields walking for miles through Hertfordshire's gentle landscape. Mind you, the amount of chalk and mud in those fields meant you came home about six inches taller and it took forever to clean the stuff off of your boots. Oh, I enjoyed the pubs in the High Street and the one guitar shop (owned by Chris Barber's guitarist John Slaughter) but these were later joy. In my youth if you ventured out particularly on Friday and Saturday nights you needed to be able to either run fast or have the gift of the gab to stop being beaten up by the marauding gangs of skinheads. The violent underbelly of the urban landscape has always driven me out towards clean air and vast fields. You can see who's coming and from what direction much easier.
My thoughts these past few days have drifted back to those times but not through any nostalgia particularly. Talking to old friends via the phone or email has made me start to think much less of my home town. I still go back occasionally to see a few of our best friends who still live there. But when we're there we go to their houses and very occasionally a pub in the High Street. I never go to the town centre but we do often walk out to some of the rural areas that have survived into this century. These are some of the same places I used to walk myself.
Also, another old friend from the old place invited me into a Facebook group of old memories of the town. I took a look around there, posted a thing or two about some gigs I put on at the College and now feel that I have little interest in what's being posted there. It's a long time ago. Maybe the worrying amount of adult illiteracy in what I read there has put me off, I'm not sure. I don't really give a toss about, "who remembers the chinese restaurant/cinema/tramp?" etc that goes with the territory. Or maybe, finally after thirty five years living away from the place, I've finally got it out of my system. I'm not sure which.
Still, I started by talking about London. Another thing that has definitely prompted me to think about my home town is the book I'm reading. I'm reading Paul Du Noyer's In The City which is brief history of the music of London and how that city has helped shape much of the music that we all know and love. It's a book where Elizabethan ballads, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Music Hall are as important as Carnaby Street and the Kinks and Small Faces. Typically, of such a book covering such a subject, there are parts that are much more interesting than others. That is to say that by three quarters of the way though when punk rears its spotty Art School face and he starts to write about Wham! and Dizzee Rascal, my interest has totally waned. It's not an exhaustive history but I feel there is a lot missed out. Still, there have been some intriguing points made along the way.
One thing that struck me is that whilst much modern music, like punk, is a product of urban environments, I fell in love with more acoustic based music at an early age. Genesis being the first band I really took to in the early 1970s lead me to enjoying Prog music for a while. But the 12 string guitars, flutes and more pastoral sounds juxtaposed against the electric guitars and drums eventually lead me towards more Elysian fields and into folk. The acoustic/electric mix of folk-rock also fuelled my rural/urban upbringing. Like many in the early seventies, a semi-rusticated childhood through the 1960s had fuelled a love for the types of music Fairport Convention, Traffic and Nick Drake were producing.
The main prompt to my thinking, though, was a quote from Paul Weller. Now, he was from outside of London too. Hailing from Woking, which is twenty six miles and half an hour outside of Waterloo, Weller also had a desire for London. Weller worked hard and has several changes of direction musically. He desperately wanted London but needed also to remember where he came from and use his influences. Town and country. What he says to Du Noyer is probably in essence how I feel about the past too. However, before I end with the full quote, I'd like to just point out that most towns are like this. If you're lucky enough to live near open fields, woods, hills and/or the sea then you too probably feel that pull. You need the services available, you need community but you also need to escape the fumes and noise. I do feel blessed in some ways for having the rural location of my youth with the ease of getting to London too:
"It's funny to look at those paces," he says of his childhood. "Everywhere looks tiny and run down. It's all the reasons I wanted to get the fuck out of there. I've still got family there but my main link with Woking is the area where I used to play as a kid, the woods around there, the rural side. The actual town's a dump, like most satellite towns. They've got a big mall but no one's got any bread and the shops are empty . . . "