The other night me and Ella jumped into the car and drove East; away from the burden of school; away from the long train of stressful GCSE exams passing slowly through her life; East - to the City of Hull. I love having time alone with my kids, time to just talk about stuff, stuff they need to know like “Dad have you ever taken drugs” (“yes”), or “Why did you and mum split up” (“well…”). Trying to be honest. Trying not to give them easy answers - easy for me or them. I love my kids like any father, but like any father, I love mine the most.
I was speaking at The Adelphi club, a legendary micro music venue, a converted four-bedroom house whose capacity was - well - the same as the downstairs of a four-bedroom house; one held in high regard by anyone who loves the kind of music only those who believe they know what music is would love.
The Adelphi is a dark hole, which - with the lights up - and the music off - has all the appeal of a crack den - the kind of place where you don’t lean or touch anything unless you have to - to unless it’s a fellow sweaty traveller. But when the music starts, like all such places, in the dark and the din, it’s cathedral large. The Adelphi drips with history, and where it doesn’t drip, you’ll find its stains, hosting bands like Radiohead, the Happy Mondays and Pulp (and of course Hull’s own Housemartins, who later transmogrified into the Beautiful South). My old mate Wayne the fireman had once been in a band called Limb, their claim to fame: they once got double-booked at the Adelphi with some Stone Roses tribute band with a name that sounded like a bingo hall. Being the home-side, Wayne and his band acted as support that night, which was lucky, as the visiting side weren’t too shabby for a tribute band. Wayne dropped his dreams of stardom soon after that and became - well - a fireman, while the main act - a band called Oasis, went onto bigger things.
I was speaking there with my old friend John Doran, a bit of a legend himself, a music critic behind the website The Quietus - a man whose life in music far exceeded even Alex Honnold’s in terms of near-death experiences, the intoxication of the steep replaced for him with other, more enslaving intoxications - in all forms.
Straight now, John had written a funny, sad, angry and troubling autobiography called Lucky Lad, recounting his life so far. The book had begun to form after the two of us climbed Tryfin in North Wales several years ago (you can read an early version of that climb here), a bit of a turning point - even if it was a wide arc.
The format of the night was music, talking and reading, and all I had to do - being another unexpected author - was to talk about Hull on stage with John to kick things off.
There were a lot of people there I knew, many of whom I’d not seen since leaving Hull in the ’90s, some of who still looked like they did at nineteen, while others reminded me of old shrivel dusty pub furniture - like Mark E Smith, sans music. In that dark space faces loomed up, load-music-too-close, some faces I knew, some I’d forgotten, some I was surprised still were still breathing their cider breath
There is always a slight embarrassment in returning home, with your little bit of success, a sort of shyness, like you get between people, the intimacy wrapped in cling film, the one that got away, and that’s sort of what the night was about - the ones that got away.
For some that had stayed life had not changed much since I’d left twenty-four years ago, the life I’d been so keen to escape from I guess - a life on the dole, or signed off and into ‘self-employment’ where you lived on tax credits, a place that still seems like a desert of opportunity, where people like me would just cling on. Walking around the streets before the show, streets I’d grown up, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of decline; dirty houses, fridges and rubbish in gardens, - the most glaring omission from the streets of my childhood - pride, well-kept gardens, painted window frames and swept payments, a feeling of hopelessness that never lifted, only pooled everywhere. But then thinking like that just makes you feel old. Hull is what it is.
Mandy, my ex-wife was there with her husband Mark - always a star - she told me not to talk too much about myself on stage, that ‘this is John’s night’ she said as I went up, a comment a little like a slash in your Achilles just before the start line, but then what else are ex’s for?
I took to the stage and we sat together on high stools - me and John - me dressed like a climber, him like a sweaty best man at a wedding whose groom had not turned up. He just looked terrified, like he had on the summit of Tryfin, asking with all honesty “How do we get down?”. Tonight, clean for a few years, he looked like he needing more than full-fat Coke-a-Cola to calm his nerves.
“The only advice you ever gave me Andy about talking” begins John “Is to always have a slide with a pubic hair on it, so that no matter how bad you are they’ll still laugh out of that”.
I tell the story of how the first time my mum saw me speak in Hull I told everyone she was a prostitute, and Hull being Hull they all laughed (and she did too, rolling her eyes). The second time I apologised for calling her that, and said she wasn’t, that ‘she’d retired’. Then I tell the story about my mum telling me off, after I said how poor we were as kids, shouting “You weren’t poor, you weren’t poor - I was poor”.
We move onto books, and John tells how writing Lucky Lad was the worst experience of his life, and how he had a nervous breakdown in the middle of it, one editor advising him to see a psychiatrist after reading the first draft.
I tell the tale of going to Venice to receive the prestigious Gambrinus “Giuseppe Mazzotti” prize - how I had had no spare clothes and stank of sweat - how I’d driven through the night from a gig to get to the airport - had to piss in a cup otherwise I’d miss my plane and spilt it on my trousers - how the event had been televised and there were only three winners - how out of place I seemed, my spur of the moment - and translated - speech boiling down to the fact that until the age of 19 I’d never eaten garlic.
Even though it was dark in the club, and although she’d hate to know it was true, the person who laughed loudest was Mandy.
Our bit over I stepped down onto the sticky dance floor and John read some of his book to music by Arabrot’s Kjetil Nernes, his cinematic guitar played over John’s story about the Red Arrow’s.
Moving through the crowd Mandy squeezed my arm, “You did well”.
After my bit I played a round of pool in the back room with Mandy’s Mark, Mandy’s husband, who - although drunk and short-sited - wiped the floor with me - because he’s a real man. Ella watched as I selflessly lost, talking about her two dad’s playing against each other. Whether you’re the husband of an ex-wife, and the husband of someone else’s ex-wife, things are never quite normal - always a little strange, a little strained. Mark always makes me feel like a bit of an asshole, not that he makes me, that’s just how I feel. Maybe next to him I am - but I can’t help it, solid and dependable just isn’t me, but hey - I had been Mandy and Mark’s wedding photographer, so I can’t be all bad.
“Dad we need to go home” reminded Ella, looking tired, Ewen left at home with his X-box. And so, with as little fuss, and with a few goodbyes as possible, we slipped out the side door. Who knows when we’ll be back.
As I drove home, back to Sheffield, Hull hung in my mind, that even with all its problems I could never escape the fact it would always be home - the only place I would truly belong, that in the pitch black silt there shone some diamonds - even if they were only broken glass.
“Tell me something,” said Ella, bored of the radio.
So we talked.
Not wanting normal father-daughter chit chat, such as “how’s school” etc, going instead to the popular topic of mine of belief - how Ella should never accept what anyone said, left or right, about how we dehumanise people whose beliefs differ from our own - Torie, Labour, Green, UKIP, National Front - that like it or not, the reality was that each and everyone truly believed in what they believe, that even in the darkest belief there lay a little truth, and that the only way to change belief - to what you believe - was to first understand and accept the beliefs of your enemies. That kind of thing, but with more jokes (later on I tweeted that I’d been talking politics with Ella for four hours, but was still none the wiser).
The topic switched to socialism versus capitalism, and I gave her my usual speech about the inherent unfairness in everything, from a collapsing star to a fractured string of DNA, that there will always be the weak, the greedy, the lazy, the violent, the stupid, the unlucky, and that will never change - good people are crushed, while bad people thrive. Not everyone can be saved, no matter how hard we try.
Applying some critical thinking Ella turned and asked what about her and her brother then. She was set to get A’s or A stars in most of her exams - she was sorted, and would always do well in life. “But what about Ewen?” she asked his chances of getting any good GCE’s slim, his talents yet to be fired. “What about Ewen - what happens to him?”
Trying to think of an answer I asked if she remembered the film 2012, the one where the huge waves crash over the Himalayas at the end, where almost the whole world dies, the one where the world is destroyed - well almost.
“Well, you know in that film that there are two big ships designed to save the last people left alive on the earth, the most important people in the world, the rich and clever and talented ones?”
“Well you get to go on the boat Ella - but not your brother.”
Even in the dark, I could sense Ella’s shock at what I’d just said.
“Not everyone gets to go on the boat,” I tell her.
“DAD!” she shouts at me, “You can’t say that - Ewen’s your son, that’s a horrible thing to say!”
“That’s life Ella,” I say, knowing how hard it sounds, the brutality that experienced and excepted by the majority of the people on this planet.
“But for people like Ewen they never get on the ship, they’re stuck outside in the flood.”
Ella went quiet.
“But don’t worry, I’d never got on the boat either - me and Ewen - we’ll just make our own arrangements”
There was a long pause.
“I’ll save him,” she said, and I’m sure she will.