Sunday, October 30, 2011

Memories from the bottom of the garden

The Daily Mail is the self-appointed beating heart of Middle England. Much of its 'news' coverage is enraged thundering about BBC excess, or gratuitious photographs of female celebrities dressed in such a way as to leave "little to the imagination".

The Mail's other stock-in-trade is reunion stories. These come in two versions: D-Day veterans meeting up for the first time since pegging it across Juno Beach under significantly inconvenient German gunfire; and tales of childhood sweethearts who, since sharing a bus ride in 1937, have lived separate lives until a chance encounter outside a High Street pie shop ignites flames of octogenarian passion.

Thankfully, the Mail is unlikely to catch up with my own story of renewed acquaintance: it may not compete with lead-dodging Tommies for drama or Sid and Doris and their romance rekindled for warming of the heart's cockles, but it does roll back more years than I'm really at ease contemplating.

It starts with one of those lost evenings on Wikipedia that Eddie Izzard warns against - clicking on one blue link leads to another, and another, before you've acquired - momentarily - a small pile of trivia you have little use for and equally little chance of retaining.

One Tuesday evening two years ago in late March, I was idly touring the Wikiverse, vacantly jumping from link to link about rock stars connected to my native suburb on the London/Surrey borders. I'd long been curious about the high concentration of talent to have originated from this corner of England: Eric Clapton was born in the idyllic village of Ripley, was schooled in Surbiton and launched his career in the riverside pubs of Kingston. Paul Weller hails from Woking and, ironically, now has his HQ in Ripley; The Rolling Stones built their reputation at Richmond's Crawdaddy Club, The Who put nearby Eel Pie Island in Twickenham on the map, Rod Stewart was discovered busking at Twickenham railway station, and The Yardbirds shared a house in Kew. And, as What Would David Bowie Do? has previously noted, John Martyn was born in my birthtown, New Malden.

The last blue link I selected that evening revealed that, on November 3, 1967, the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames gained a new resident, Steven Wilson, lead singer, guitarist, principal songwriter and Grammy-nominated producer of Porcupine Tree, prolific collaborator of a restless number of side-projects including the highly acclaimed Blackfield with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen, and more recently, taking on the task of remastering the entire King Crimson back catalogue.

Whether by fate or happy accident, some months before a colleague had recommended a listen to Porcupine Tree. I'd missed their emergence in the early 1990s - it happens - but dove in and acquired their albums Deadwing and In Absentia, discovering in the process a band that was regulalrly selling out legendary venues like New York's Radio City Music Hall and the Royal Albert Hall.

Although described as 'progressive rock' - by no means a derogatory description in my book - it was clear that Porcupine Tree's roots, ho-ho, lay in a rich foundation of influences, ranging from late ’60s psychedelia, early ’70s prog, ’80s metal and the more recent ambient/alt-rock scenes. Sitting, comfortably, somewhere between Muse, Athlete, Eno, Radiohead and TalkTalk, amongst other more extreme sources (German industrial rock is a strong possibility), it was a delight to hear an English band revelling in the musical territory I'd been enjoying since first taking interest in the fact I was taking interest in music itself.

So, back to my Wiki-clicking: the Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fame was the Steven Wilson born eight days before I arrived in the same borough. This was odd since, for the first six years of my existence there was a Steven Wilson living around the corner from me, who was born the week before me, and thus along with me would have been doing a decent job of keeping our respective neighbours awake in those winter months of 1967 and 1968.

This could still have been a huge coincidence, but I thought the easiest way to establish the facts was to chance a "This might seem strange, but..." e-mail sent to Steven's management company. Within an hour - and with the intermediary "Stalker or legit?" from his manager - the man himself wrote back: "Yes, I'm me, and you are you." Contact made, after 36 years.

Steven and I were six when we went our separate ways. His father's work took the family to Hertfordshire which, while hardly emigration, felt that way back then. Having met at kindergarten, we became friends and would frequently play together, Steven appearing at the hole in the fence at the bottom of our garden (his house backed on to mine), me going round to his house (and once disgracing myself by tripping arse-over-tit on his mum's newly washed front step, spilling vast flagons of claret all over it in the process.

Connecting again with Steven bridged a strange chasm of distance. Facebook and its ilk age have ensured that keeping in touch with your past, with school friends and old colleagues, no longer requires the services of the Pinkertons. This, however, was different. At four, five or six years old, life lacked any greater purpose or importance than what would be the Action Man outfit your next birthday might provide.

We tend to chapterise our life history: Childhood, The Teenage Years, School, First Romance, Leaving Home, Starting Work, and so on - departments of a life lived to date, each with their own set of characters, experiences and associated memories. Steven and I, on the other hand, shared only a prologue, which made me at least realise that the passing of 36 years was an awfully long time.

Before, however, we could meet in person and wistfully recount the expiry of time, progress and, in Steven's case, extreme achievement, fate intervened for, apparently, the second time (while I was working as a music journalist several years ago, Steven had in fact tried to get in touch with me. Sadly, his letter went astray). With purpose, a ticket and a backstage pass for Porcupine Tree's Amsterdam show in October 2009, we planned to catch up properly.

Unfortunately this attempt was thwarted by the brand of officiousness that is an occupational hazard to habitual liggers, but should not come between two childhood friends getting together after three and a half decades. Armed with the aftershow 'laminate' (backstage pass by another name) Steven had generously arranged for me to have, I strode up to what turned out to be a colour-blind security guard who decided that my pink pass wasn't the same colour as the puce pass on his clipboard - which by now matched the puce complexion of my face. By the time he'd resolved the issue with someone more senior, the opportunity had been lost.

This week, 36 became 38, and Steven and I finally met in Paris. His excellent solo album, Grace Before Drowning, had brought him to the prestigious Bataclan theatre in Paris.

As with the Amsterdam show, there was something surreal about seeing him on stage. I've seen friends in bands perform before, but when the lead singer is someone you last saw at the age of six, there is little to relate to apart from the knowledge that you knew each other only as young children.

When we shook hands later it wasn't a moment of or for sentiment, nor was it meant to be. It was more a moment of novelty, like two passing acquaintances from many years before falling through the same hole in time and landing in a now empty, cavernous Parisian hall.

Although almost four decades is an awful long time to cover in the handful of minutes available - the chapters both too numerous and too irrelevant to recount - it was a moment of satisfaction.

There was also pride that someone from the furthest reaches of my past, from before any of us had formed ambitions or an idea of what they wanted out of life, apart from beoming Colonel Steve Austin, had become a talented, successful musician making the kind of music I like.

There was also the sense that, in some small way, falling through that hole in time and meeting the grown up, adult Steven, built an abstract bridge to an increasingly distant chapter in my life. One that will be filled in with greater detail I'm sure when the two of us get together for a proper natter.

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