Solitude Standing

In March 1987, I left home for the second time, moving to London to begin a distinguished (-ish) career of public service. Given I hadn’t done well the first time I moved away, not settling at Bath where I dipped my toe into the water(s) of undergraduate university life for just two terms, I was determined to make a better go of it second time round.

Back in the good old days, the Civil Service Commission offered newbies moving to The Smoke a list of approved landlords and landladies. I say an approved list, but thinking about it, the approval part may just be an assumption, or perhaps hope, by me. Anyway, a list arrived in the post and after a phone call or two I rented Emma in Dalkeith Road kitchen.jpg– more accurately, my parents rented for me – the upstairs of a pretty Edwardian house in West Dulwich. It comprised sitting room at the front, bedroom just to the right of the stairs, loo and bathroom (with a detailed and delicate scene of flora and fauna fired into the porcelain of the toilet bowl) next to the bedroom and a kitchen at the rear. Yes, in the spring of 1987, I became a Sarf Landin-er.

Actions to ensure I settled in Dulwich and made a proper go of it “this time” included not dashing back to Wales every weekend – a mistake I had made when I moved to Bath – and taking more of my stuff with me to London so that my digs felt more like home. I took favourite postcards and posters and various little knick-knacks. I also took a bottle of Warnink’s advocaat and Opie’s cocktail cherries, maraschino flavour, obviously; in those days nothing said home to me quite as much as a Snowball. My radio/cassette player and extensive collection (20) of cassette tapes came too.

Some of the cassettes I took were old favourites, others were newer purchases. I took The Jam and Style Council, natch: All Mod Cons; Setting Sons; Sound Affects; Introducing the Style Council; Café Bleu; Our Favourite Shop. Everything But The Girl, of course, came with me: Eden; Love Not Money; Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. EBTG were very much the soundtrack to my Upper Sixth year with its boozy attempts at dinner parties at Sara’s and A-level revision. I saw EBTG live at Chippenham Golddiggers as a Fresher; they had to come with me on the next part of the adventure. I took Alison Moyet’s Alf, primarily because I considered I gave belting renditions of Love Resurrection and Where Hides Sleep, especially after I’d had a couple of Pernod and blacks. Whitney Houston was in there; two school friends, Karen and Liz, and I, had driven to Wembley Arena to see her in concert the year before.

Several U2 albums made the journey to Dulwich: Boy; October; War; Under a Blood Red Sky; The Unforgettable Fire; The Joshua Tree. The latter was released the month I moved to London and I was obsessed with it, particularly Edge’s jingly-jangly guitar. I spent the greater part of my disposable income in my early months in London on tickets to see U2’s Joshua Tree tour. I saw them three times that summer, twice at Wembley Stadium and once, in the July, at the Arms Park. The second time I saw them at Wembley, I did the classic youthful fan thing, getting to the stadium as the doors opened and rushing to the front. I stayed at the front – in what would now be called the mosh pit – all day, without food, drink or comfort break. All that kept me going were 20 Embassy No1 and World Party, Spear of Destiny and The Pretenders banging out their support sets. The crush of bodies pogo-ing as Larry’s drumming signalled Sunday Bloody Sunday caused me to lose a shoe. After the concert I had to get the tube and then the (last) train home to lovely, leafy, middle-class West Dulwich wearing one shoe. Ahh, to be young again… I still have two of my Joshua Tree tour tee-shirts bought from the merch tables; my daughter, Lily, wears them occasionally – vintage, you know?

Today, some 30 years on, hearing tracks from any of these albums still gives me huge pleasure, a big smile and, often, goosebumps. There are three albums, though, purchased at the end of April 1987, with my first London salary, of which just a few faint chords are guaranteed to send me headlong into hiraeth for my (chilly) rooms at the top of that terraced house in Dalkeith Road, SE21. Cassettes amalgam.PNGThey cause me such extreme auditory anamnesis I think I could give Proust and his petite madeleine a run for their money, although far less eloquently.

The Elysian albums in question? Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain; Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry and Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing. I’m pretty confident I am still word perfect on all tracks on these albums and, similar to the old Radio 1 quiz, I can name the track within a few seconds of its opening bar. I hear any snippet from Solitude Standing and I am standing in front of the mirror in my Dulwich bedroom – in this room the cassette player sat on a shelf to the left of the chimney breast – putting on my makeup before heading down Rosendale Road to jump on a 68 bus into Croydon for work. Roddy and Aztec Camera used to sing to me while I rustled up food and ate at the little kitchen table, which overlooked the Rosendale Playing Fields, at the back of the house. And Billy Bragg was my companion in the sitting room, furnished with two early 70s teak armchairs from Parker Knoll. Boy, those chairs had itchy upholstery and I sat in them for hours sipping my Snowballs and contemplating the utter brilliance of Levi Stubbs’ Tears and Wishing the Days Away. Can you imagine how ecstatic I was last year when, having delivered a long day’s work programme, I found myself in a Hammersmith hotel wishing (the rest of) the day away; three decades I’d waited for exactly those circumstance to sing those lyrics quietly to myself. Such moments are rare in life and are to be treasured – sod a Snowball, I had a glass of bubbles to celebrate.

At other points in my life, other pop music has formed indelible links to location: Tracy Chapman’s eponymous album to my room in my second London home on the other side of Dulwich village; The Cranberries’ Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? to an open air market on a family holiday on the Costa Blanca; amusingly, Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman’s re-release of Kinky Boots in 1990, to wobbling, Weeble-like, around our flat in the Tulse Hill end of West Dulwich, waiting for baby Lily to arrive; and preciously, We Like to Party (aka, the Venga Bus song) to morning car journeys from our cottage into Croydon, to drop the girl at school and the boy at nursery, before Steve and I hopped on trains to commute into Victoria for work.