Tuesday, April 19, 2011
BOW WOW WOW
This is a piece about me and my amazing brother Tom who passed away in 2009. It's from a memoir I;m writing about him.
I took Tom to see Bow Wow Wow at the Camden Palace when I was sixteen, and he was fifteen. Small and baby faced, I knew there was no way he could have got in without me. Already working, I carried myself like an adult and with the heavy New Romantic eighties make-up I easily passed as in my mid-twenties.
I put some of my signature black kohl on Tom’s big blue eyes, and dressed him in a torn safety-pinned T-shirt and skin-tight jeans and gave him instructions on how to act as we travelled on the tube down there.
“Don’t smile – let me go in first, just stand close behind me and DON’T make mess about and make me laugh.”
He had insisted on trying to get into Saturday Night Fever with me when I was twelve at Hendon Classic Cinema for a matinee performance, and I was still convinced that they would have let me in if it hadn’t been for my childish looking brother. Tom carried himself like a man, but at not much over five-foot, he was always self-conscious about his height. As a teenager he survived the jibes by casting himself as the joker and as an adult his charm and intellect compensated for it amply.
A Saturday night, the queue to get in shuffled briskly with bewilderingly fashionable New Romantics. Tom was mad into punk: driving us all mad with it’s tuneless pounding and worrying my mother buying frightening-looking singles and T-shirts with names like The Slits and Discharge emblazoned on them. He wasn’t a pop music fan, and was disgusted with his sister’s love of bands like ABC and Heaven 17, but punk seemed to reach his very soul. It was anti-music – so his love for it confused us doubly – but I think now that punk began to grow at the same time as Tom was reaching puberty. He was angry, but unable; to express it in the same was as many of his peers – on the football pitch or scraping in the schoolyard. Punk gave voice to Tom’s pent-up masculine anger in a way that nothing else could. Plus it was all about safety pins and vomit and snot – we girls found it disgusting and tuneless and faintly frightening, and our horror always amused him.
I was wearing a voluminous white frilly blouse – and my maroon-dyed hair has been streaked with white blonde that day in a hairdressing experiment at work, and scooped up into an enormous, fluffy quiff. Tom had gelled his hair into spikes and had safety pins stuffed into the side of his mouth, hoping that nobody had noticed he hadn’t pierced them through (he had tried several times but always got horrible infections). He did an impression of a depressed zombie and I had to restrain myself from laughing. He was determined to get in.
We passed by the enormous security men unnoticed, and when we got inside, it was all I could do to stop him running up and down the stairs of the enormous, gilded amphitheatre with excitement.
“Calm down!” I kept telling him, “We could still get chucked out!”
We didn’t even go the bar. Drinking wasn’t the point then. It was the music and just being there.
From the top balcony we watched the band. Tom said they were crap. A Malcolm McLaren invention – but we danced wildly, mimicking the ludicrous sway of the fake pirates. Neither of us feeling truly a part of that scene, we were too young, and too suburban – but we were together. We watched the crowd posing and preening, and celebrated the fact that we were apart from it – safe and happy in our little twosome.
After Tom went to university and started drinking I stopped going clubbing with him. I found it too stressful when he got into a state, especially as I wasn’t drinking myself. Our relationship stayed in the safe environs of our mother’s house, or the various flats I shared with girlfriends all over London.
My first flatmate was an impossibly pretty little rich girl called Sophie. For two years I was her chubby sidekick. Men flocked to Sophie, an aspiring actress she was petite and ladylike - all highlights and eyelashes, but as her gauche hairdresser friend, all I could ever hope for in romance was her cast-offs who occasionally took to me as a consolation prize. We lived in a one bedroom flat in Fulham, and were often courted by Chelsea Hooray types. Tom found my lifestyle, a suburban Irish reared hairdressing apprentice trying to keep up with all these posh kids, hilarious. One night Sophie invited two particularly arrogant young hoorays around for a meal - Tom agreed to dress up as our butler to freak them out. He played the part of our Jeeves to perfection, looking disgusted when noting that neither man were wearing hats or gloves for him to take at the door. Between courses Butler Thomas serenaded us by playing the flute and violin, and Sophie and I held the joke that this was how we ate every evening. Tom was magnificent and after we saw off the two idiots, we sat up all night eating and smoking and having a laugh.
The last time Tom and me went clubbing was when he visited me in Dublin in the mid-nineties. Single and editing a monthly magazine, the buzzing, boozing Irish capital was my oyster.
Tom was teaching in London at the time, and it had taken me months to persuade him to come a visit me. He hated flying, and was threatening to take the bus and ferry over for just two days. I eventually nagged him onto a plane and as he came through the arrivals gate at Dublin airport he looked harried and confused. He had no luggage with him whatsoever.
“Before you have a go,” he said, “I bought a pair of socks at Gatwick,” and he held up a tiny Sock Shop bag.
His eccentricity was beyond annoying. I was worried, of course that he was drinking again. In my mind Tom was either drinking, or not drinking – there was no middle ground. I made a conscious decision that weekend not to ask him, just to let go of what he was or wasn’t doing with his life. I wanted to bring him into mine. Show him was a great time I was having in my adopted city – make him a part of it.
I was renting a cool Georgian flat on a historic strip off Baggot Street, within ten minutes walk of the city centre. He followed me around Dublin like a tourist in my life. This is where I live, this is where I work, this is where I have lunch most days, and this is where I buy my groceries. It had become hard just sitting talking with Tom. Our conversation always had such a different focus. I was old for my years – rushing towards a settled life, full of my next goal, an apartment I was thinking of buying, rearranging my life so I could write a novel. Tom still thought and lived like the teenagers he taught. While he was teaching at a girl’s school in Hackney, I was working as the editor of Just Seventeen in trendy Soho. My job gave his music department huge status with the student, he’d call me up with daft requests; “I’m just here in the music room with Shaznee and the other girls in B4 – they wanted to ask if you could get Michael Jackson to come and play with the steel band at our Christmas Concert?” “No Tom,” I would say, “I can’t. But I can send you out twenty J17 goodie bags and a signed Brother Beyond T-shirt. Will that do?”
“Brilliant!” he’d say. I was never quite sure whether, like his girls, he half-believed that I really might have the clout to organize a private Michael Jackson for them. Tom idolized me. He wrote me love letter all the time telling me how talented, how glamorous, how clever I was. He thought I was extraordinary. I never felt anything reading them beyond an overwhelming desire to pick him up and shake him and scream “You are the extraordinary one Tom – if only you would (a) believe in yourself and (b) stop drinking and get your life together. I knew I had a good life, but I wanted it for him more than I wanted it for me. At that time the life I had built myself meant little to me because I believed Tom deserved a good life too, and wouldn’t get one. As the years progressed I felt unable to enjoy it because Tom was not able to share it with me.
That weekend in Dublin is one of my happiest memories of Tom. He celebrated my life, and through his enthusiasm I experienced the glamour and vivacity I had been blessed with through my situation as a magazine editor. Every weekend in Dublin was spent trawling around the nightlife searching for love – a partner to share my life with before I turned thirty. That weekend with Tom - it didn’t matter. We walked and walked all over Dublin. I was going through an understated, lots-of-black elegant phase, but Tom persuaded me to buy a Starsky and Hutch T-shirt at a market stand Georges Street Arcade market. That night he made me wear it clubbing, with a pair of hot pants and enormous ravers trainers. He kept laughing at the T-shirt, and I kept asking “Isn’t it too small across the chest? Does it look stupid?” It was, of course, both, but he begged me to wear it out clubbing that night. “It looks great,” he said, stifling giggles. “You evil troll,” I said. “Hen!” he’d say back. I can’t remember what Tom wore, except that I am certain that it wasn’t what he travelled over in and I must have bought him something. I bought Tom clothes all the time. Being clueless was part of a ruse to get gear out of me. We went to The Pod nightclub where MTV were filming that night. As a magazine editor, I was club royalty, no queuing or questions. We were taken straight into the VIP area. Tom was buzzing. We spent the whole night on the dance floor, raving and throwing our hands about like teenagers. Tom laughed at my boobs straining beneath the tiny T-shirt and tried to manoeuvre me in front of the MTV cameras. When we wore ourselves out we went back to the VIP enclose and Tom, self-consciously, drank a single pint. I held myself back from letting it ruin the night. He was making a point of having just-the-one, proving he could; I recognized the gesture as denial and let it go without comment. We walked home at four am, stopping at an all night café where we stuffed our faces with an enormous fry and talked, for the first time that weekend. Him with a pint inside him, me too tired to argue and my hunger for his company sated, it felt safe.
I told him how brilliant he was and that I loved him and he said the same to me. Perhaps it was the other way around but with Tom that important distinction never mattered. One of us always said it first.