Friday, 18 December 2009
37. I Need Direction, Teenage Fanclub (2000)
By summer 2002, I knew I had to do something. I was working as a medical secretary at the Tavistock Centre, a mental health trust nestling between Swiss Cottage, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a statue of Freud glowering at patients outside it. I'd fell into the job, really, taking a temp position after a gruesome six months doing advertising sales – something I'd quit that when they stuck me in an Westminster office with only a box of calling cards and a racist, bottom-pinching boss, as low-flying planes over the Houses Of Parliament reminded me what had just happened in New York City. After that, I loved the Tavistock dearly, even though being there wasn't what I'd planned to do with my life. I really loved our office – sitting with Sheila and Alana, gossiping and filing and typing as I administered files for the family therapy team, Capital Gold and Magic FM giving us Foreigner, Mr Mister and Phyllis Nelson on the half-hour, another cup of tea, yes please, my foot on the audio pedal, tip-tap, tip-tap, learning about other people's lives, itching to write about them properly.
But one night at home, I started to cry. I knew where the tears were coming from. I'd wanted to be a journalist, I told Barry, and now it was too late to try again. When I was 16, I worked at the Llanelli Star, writing about old people's memories, magistrates court cases, and the latest goings-on down in Stradey Park, and I'd gone to a short magazine course, run by Mojo editor, Mat Snow, and he'd liked my writing. But then university came, and my confidence left me when I went to the student papers – too many bright, sparkling stars whooshing and whirring around The Oxford Student corridors, my fingers freezing on the keys when I thought about what to write. I got into Students Union politics and the idea of being a lecturer instead, and as the tears fell that night, I still hadn't forgiven myself. Because now, here I was, 24 years old, owner of a Masters degree with distinction, spending my life every day writing about how parents and children were torn apart by divorce and civil war, alcoholism and mental illness, doing a job I could've done straight after my GCSEs.
I had no idea I could change my life at this point. I was doing something worthy, I knew that. But deep down, I knew that it wasn't for me, that I was coasting along, that there was something inside me dying to be set free.
That summer, out of nowhere, I had the idea for Smoke. Matt and I had become friends the previous winter, when I'd met him at a gig for his label, Shinkansen Records, and we'd become email friends, sharing titbits and silly stories about the city I was now falling in love with. One morning it hit me – we could turn our ideas into a magazine. We met in The Lamb in Lamb's Conduit Street, swirling pints of heady bitter, and I told him my idea. We saved money for months, wrote half the first issue ourselves, and I slowly gained confidence. I got a new job, working for a small children's charity, and by March 2003, we were printing the first 1,000 copies of Smoke, letting it out into the world, two proud parents letting their baby roam free.
While Smoke was my little piece of heaven, the charity job was hell on earth. The first day had seemed magical – me in my new red, funnel-neck coat, walking up the fire escape, like a homecoming queen, the promise of a PA position in the House Of Lords pushing me on – before I got redeployed, asked to work one-to-one with young people instead. Young girls coming here from Afghanistan, after being raped, recovering heroin addicts, surly boys with no hope in their hearts for any kind of future. My boss, Captain Chandran, even more unpleasant than the man in Westminster, leering at my chest every day; calling Ahmed, the lovely Muslim graduate who worked with me, Osama; faking statistics; not offering me any training or support; my chest tightening so much on one particular morning that my still very dear friend Heather called me a cab, whisking me to Hammersmith for an ECG, where a particularly bold doctor told me this life had to stop.
But then Smoke was sent to the printers, sparking up a glint of light on the murky Acton horizon, and suddenly I had reason to go forward, go on.
And then, something incredible happened. In February, the same month that we were getting Smoke ready for the printers, I'd spent a weekend in Swansea, and was now at the train station, about to head home. There it was. A new magazine, a picture of Nick Cave on the cover, seducing me from the shelves, calling me over. It was called Word. I remember looking at the cover lines and my heart starting to heave again, an old rush of magazine love returning to my bones. This was just like that moment in Morgans in Gorseinon when I was 10, a magazine called Smash Hits next to Look-In and Hi!, Brother Beyond on the cover with surfboards, begging my mother for 48 pence, taking it home, my life changing, the world opening up, the people writing for it becoming my heroes.
And now, I felt the same again. I was hooked. Every month after that, I'd take the 207 bus to Ealing on the second Thursday of the month, rush into WH Smiths, quickly buy my bounty, and take it back to the office, my lunch hour nearly gone. It had a magazine of the month slot in its front section, and when Smoke came back from the printers, I had an insane idea – we would send some to Word. A few weeks later, I got an email from David Hepworth, saying he loved it, asking if he could interview us. And the next day, Paul Du Noyer sending another, asking me if I'd like to write for him. That night in The Angel, Matt and I, David Hepworth and editor Mark Ellen, the dictaphone, the long-hand notebook, my voice starting to crackle with confidence. A week later, in purple Primark sandals in a posh bar with Paul Du Noyer, talking about what I could write, talking about what I could do. So exciting, so unreal, like a dream coming true.
In Issue 5 of The Word, Smoke was magazine of the month. In Issue 6, my first review glowed in its middle – a piece on Teenage Fanclub's recently released best-of, as part of a feature on great records and books for summer. I still remember touching the page with amazement, imagining that my words and my name were going to disappear. I played the album more and more at home to keep it real, and I Need Direction was the track I loved the most.
Every time I play it now, it still brings back so many memories, every chiming guitar string setting off another. Two months later, taking a train and a lift from Uncle Mike to a Travelodge in Leicester to interview Billy Bragg. A week later, lying about having a meeting with some young mums in Southall, and sneaking down to Hammersmith to interview the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones instead. And then Paul Du Noyer asking me if I wanted to be his assistant over the phone, my face gazing out at the rainy Acton skyline, my smile giving it light. Getting the 207 – not to Ealing, but Shepherds Bush – having a drink with Mark Ellen, the offer letter over the table. The wonderful realisation that something had happened, that something was happening, that this was my new life, that I had made it myself.