THINGS.

A blog artwork by John Rogers.

87. The Dip-Dye Cardigan

This is one of the only times I’ve seen an item of clothing in a magazine, and then gone out and bought it. Often my clothing ideas come from instinct, not trends, although fashion obviously permeates everyone’s wardrobe if only through what’s out there. Embarrassingly, someone I’d just met had read the article about dip-dye clothing too, and nailed me for taking inspiration from a weekend supplement.

I bought this online just before a trip to France, and wore it for most of the weekend. It was during an “off” period in the seesaw on/off relationship I was in from 2009 through till early 2012. I was trying to break free from a girl who, at that point, loved me desperately, but we created nothing but explosive chemistry. Nothing seemed easy, from spending a night in, to deciding when to go to sleep, to choosing a restaurant. I didn’t trust her any more, with good reason, and despite us hanging in there, my distrust was grinding down her self-esteem; she was drinking more and feeling increasingly unloved and isolated, trying harder and harder to draw me back with gestures that to me felt hollow. Arguments lurked and simmered beneath the surface of everything. Antagonism was in her blood.

So, I’d broken it off, and withdrawn into myself for a while - that involuntary, defensive emotional flinch action some people have, in which hurt is swallowed and numbness kicks in as a coping mechanism. I hoped that perhaps the space might do us good, and maybe we’d reconnect in the future, healed and happier.

But in this period of reflection and renewal, someone else had turned my head, a friend and colleague, who seemed to represent the opposite of the problems I’d had. We had an easy connection, natural affection, and a soft-edged rapport, and we’d become close friends and confidantes. The first time we went out, it was to a gig in a room so full we couldn’t get in. She looked at me, smiled, took my hand, and led us into the packed crowd to a spot where we could see. This sweet gesture was enough to remind me that simple things don’t have to be so hard - I felt like I’d found someone with an open, honest heart, who instinctively was drawn towards being good rather than darkness and negativity. Spending time with her felt like a relief after the tension and heartache of what I’d just been through - she was kind, moral and open, someone to whom being free came easily, and she brought out the best in me, instead of the worst.

She came on the France trip that year, along with some journalists who I knew would be fun to hang out with. We had a really nice weekend, a group of new friends. We saw great music, breathed the sea air, were chauffeured around Brittany by the tourist board and fed oysters and local delicacies. We partied hard, meeting at the breakfast table grey-faced and hung over. We were caught in a torrential rainstorm one day and ran into a little restaurant to shelter, drinking pints that made English tankards look like shot glasses. We tripped over the legs of some people at our hotel in the dark, only to find it was The Rapture, trying to find a spot where they could get onto the hotel wi-fi. It was her birthday while we were away, so I brought her breakfast in bed - champagne, flowers, and a green amber bracelet tied up in a bow. We spent the day exploring the rocky coastline, beaches and city walls of St Malo. That night, we kissed at her hotel room door and said a smiling goodnight. On the last night of trip, we dozed for a few restless hours side by side, and on the ferry home, we slept in the depths of the hull, close and content in the tiny single bunk.

But back home, the magic wore off. She knew I was still very hurt and emotionally entangled, and sensibly withdrew. Working together became difficult - my heart hurt from being rejected, and hers from losing one of her closest friends. It was one of the key catalysts in my leaving that job, which had been making me unhappy for years, except for her company each day.

In the time since then, we’ve become friends again, and I’m glad, because it’s rare for two people to understand and enjoy each other so instinctively.

This cardigan was lost - on another trip, my case failed to make it onto the plane somehow, and was found destroyed on the runway in Helsinki. Perhaps it’s a rag now on a grassy verge somewhere in Finland, or was swept away and poured into a landfill. Or maybe it was even found, and kept, and worn.

I missed it so I bought another, which is already becoming worn and torn. Just today, I bought a third. I like this top too much to be without one.

86. The Toy Megaphone

This was used by my ex-girlfriend Alice in a band we were in a few years ago called Tracy Is Hot & The Clap. We had a mutual friend called Tristan, an hormonal young fellow who managed to combine an excellent memory that made him like a walking encyclopedia with an equally notable lack of social awareness. One minute he could be holding forth authoritatively about 18th century poetry or the state of the European Union, and the next you could be fending off the third snog attempt of the day.

We ended up going to an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival together in Minehead, taking an epic coach route because the train prices were very high. To fill in the time, we made up a band, and in the days of hangover that followed the festival, we made some songs on Garageband and some videos on iMovie. They were mostly about thirty seconds long with a single snare drum, a cymbal, one-chord guitar playing, and some shouting. Alice used this megaphone.

We did three gigs that I can remember. The first was at Brixton Windmill, watched by twenty or thirty people. We dressed up with in cardboard signs, plastic flowers, facepaint and all kinds of assembled ephemera. It quickly became apparent that Tristan’s rambling between-song monologues were like a comedy performance in themselves, and that people’s reaction to us varied between fascination, anger, hilarity and disgust. That performance is up on YouTube, and as we came off the stage, the disconsolate sound engineer said “that was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen”.

One gig was in the basement of a Bristol crafts shop, and another was at the Brudenell Social in Leeds, opening for British Sea Power, who’d sold the venue out.

It was a deeply silly project, redefining the lower limits of what it takes to be in a band and limboing under the lowest of the lo-fi, but it was also quite loveably exuberant and actually pretty avant-garde in it’s disregard for musicianship and songcraft. We discovered that it’s surprising easy to accidentally rattle the cages of people who take the conventions of music very seriously whilst having a good time.

Tristan went on to captain Manchester’s winning team on University Challenge 2012.

85. The Pepper Mill

This is something I bought when I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time.

Students are famous for their lack of cookery skills, and I was no different. I was probably even worse than most, having not really been allowed near the kitchen. My mum is an alpha-mum, with a flawless routine for keeping the house running smoothly. It’s always spotless, it’s always in a state of total order, with a well-stocked kitchen and mental notes made on what’s defrosting or freezing; how much bread and milk there is and when some more should be bought. The dinners and breakfasts for the week are loosely planned, and I’ve never gone looking for tea bags, loo rolls or milk to find that there wasn’t a stock ready and waiting to be used. There are always new toothbrushes, always clean towels, always fuses and flints and matches and brandy. It’s always struck me as an expert skill, especially when I moved out and started to understand just how much work and organisation goes into running a house that way.

A lot of my mum’s home cooking came from a large, well-worn book that’s apparently well known, the Good Housekeeping Cookbook. I think a lot of the recipes were anglicised versions of classics from overseas, perhaps from a time when some ingredients were less readily available. Spaghetti bolognese, for example, contained gravy browning in the sauce, as well as bacon, celery, carrots and a pinch of nutmeg. It was absolutely delicious and my hands-down childhood favourite, but a huge deviation from the Italian recipe. The first time I ordered it in a restaurant, I got a shock. 

As I started shopping for myself, I picked up things that my parents never bought and started developing tastes of my own. I got into using fresh garlic, and ginger - Japanese cooking, fresh noodles and stir-fries. Things my mum dismissed as too oily like avocados and duck, I got into; I learned that I like my vegetables crunchy and my steaks rare. It’s fun to start exploring cookery yourself.

The pepper mill was a part of this. At the family home, we had a pepper shaker, with the kind of dusty pepper that makes you sneeze. But I realised that I preferred freshly milled pepper: the process of grinding it up, the fresh aroma, and the flavour. I have milled black pepper on pretty much everything.

And black peppercorns are one of the few things I don’t run out of on a regular basis.

84. The Internet Forever Album

Internet Forever is a really great band name. So good, it kind of functions as a slogan all by itself. They formed a few years ago. I was one of many who fell in love with their first ever demo, a fuzzy, lo-fi three-chord pop song called “Break Bones”.

They started as a duo who’d met online - a girl called Laura Wolf, who I knew a little from the internet and had met a couple of times, and a guy called Craig (aka Heartbeeps) who lived up in Cambridge. A former bandmate of mine called Chris joined a little later to help them prepare their songs for the stage, and being quite a deft instrumentalist he also ended up doing a lot of arrangements on the final versions of the songs.

They came to a Brainlove show in Whitechapel one night after practice, and I hung out with them for a bit. Me and Laura hit it off, and ended up going out with each other for a while. The band had gigs coming up in different parts of England, so I went on the trips, partly because I was really into seeing them play, and partly to spend time with Laura, like an official band WAG. We were both very busy people with work that crept into our evenings and weekends - she a school teacher and me a music publicist - so we had to do things like gigs and festivals together, if we were gonna see each other at all.

I had a little Hi-8 video camera and shot the gigs when they played in Norwich, Manchester and various London shows, editing it together later into a little home-made film. I did a few bits and pieces for them too, helping out with press releases and such. After a while, me and Laura stopped seeing each other, and the band went into a bit of a hibernation period, working behind closed doors with various producers for over two years.

Finally though, they popped up online this year with the announcement that their album was finally being released. I’d not really spoken to them for ages, but I pre-ordered a record, eager to hear it, and I was really excited when it showed up with it’s a meticulously designed packaging. It feels like an artefact, somehow.

I finally got around to ordering a new record player mostly just to play this record, and when it arrived a few weeks later, I finally unwrapped the vinyl and stuck it on. I got a flush of familiar excitement to hear those songs again - the time had paid off, and each one sounds like it’s been honed down into the perfect version.

There was a printed lyrics card inside, and as I was reading, I noticed my name in the thank you list. My heart skipped a beat - it was totally unexpected, and I was glowing with pride that they’d remembered my little part in it all. It showed a lot of character, I thought, and it made me smile.

83. The Nose Stud

I got my nose pierced aged 19. At the time, getting a piercing just came very naturally, in the flow of everyday events. It was just something that happened. I don’t remember really thinking about it that much; just that it hurt less than expected. And that sometimes it might slip out at night, and in the morning it might have sealed, so that it hurt to push the stud through again after finding it on my pillow in the morning. It hurt then, so much it made my eyes water.

Thinking about getting a tattoo or a piercing now would seem like a huge decision. Just… what to get done? The ramifications or significances, what it would mean or how it would feel or look or reflect on who I am. I’ve never had a tattoo, because everything changes - ideas, tastes and beliefs. If every image is something you might move on from, grow out of, develop or refine or discard completely, why have any of it inked onto your skin?

One day I decided to just let the piercing grow over, but there’s still a visible dimple where the it was. Other than a couple of scars from medical stuff or accidents, it’s the only permanent mark on me, and it’s the only one that was done willfully.

82. The Hospital Pager

This big plastic pager isn’t mine. It came into my possession today for about half an hour, at the Imaging Reception on the third floor of the Whittington Hospital in Archway. It’s a queuing innovation, I guess - they give you a pager, you go and sit down in the large, open mezzanine with it’s view across North London, and a while later, it springs to life suddenly, and starts vibrating and tweeting at you angrily like a flightless robot bird. That’s the signal that you can now go and join another shorter queue, outside the ultrasound room.

I’m here for a scan on a sore leg that probably has a thrombosis inside of it; that is, a congealed clot that’s obstructing the blood flow. I’ve had these three times before, and am now on medication for life to stop this happening, so why it’s there now is currently a mystery to me.

The first time this happened, my doctor misdiagnosed it as a sporting injury, because of my status as a “healthy young man”. Protesting that the only sport I’d played since leaving school was International Superstar Soccer on Playstation made no impression, and he sent me packing. It got worse and worse until one day I was dragging my leg so badly, I had to sit down in Birmingham City Centre, and just burst into tears. Something serious was wrong, and I knew it. Soon after, I was standing in the bathroom at my parents’ house looking in the mirror when I felt a violent, painful palpitation in my chest. I went downstairs and my mother shot up out of her chair and said with alarm: “what’s happened? You’re as pale as a ghost.”

The GP was called, and then after a brief examination, so was an ambulance. A piece of a large untreated blood clot had broken off, and passed through my heart. If it had become lodged, I’d have been found dead on the bathroom floor that day.

I was in Stafford hospital for a week, on high-dosage painkillers. During that week, 9/11 happened. It was surreal: everyone stopped working and stood around the TV set watching the towers collapse in shock and disbelief. Nurses, doctors, patients and visitors alike stood, hands over their mouths, as it became clear that this wasn’t an aviation accident but something much worse. I was on such high-dosage painkillers, I thought it might be a surreal hallucination, and had nightmares afterwards about being trapped in a hospital ward in a crumbling tower block, watching the room on CCTV and unable to get out as the floor subsided in flames - and even then not knowing if the terrifying scene was real, or a hallucination.

It was frustrating to be imprisoned, but I tried to always be polite and appreciative of the nurses’ care. I only occasionally vexed them by hijacking a wheelchair or a walking frame and making a break for the reception to buy a Guardian, impatient for the trolley to come around and hungry for news.

After a while, you sink into the quiet, amniotic lull of the ward’s rhythm and become accustomed to events drifting by. Pale blue walls. Warmth. Nurses buzzing around. Muted chatter. Meals that come and go, patients that do the same, and the long daily visits from my wonderful mum and dad. The doctor would appeared now and then, like a visiting celebrity, bearing secret knowledge that could resolve everything, frowning at a clipboard and talking rapidly into a dictaphone.

After a course of medication, I got back to normal, but a few summers later it happened again. This time, I was living in London, and had to handle it alone. It was the pit of a hot summer, and the World Cup was on. I felt that familiar pain and with mounting trepidation went to the nearest hospital - the sprawling Victorian antique that is the Royal Free Hospital in Whitechapel. I was there for the day, taught how to inject myself in the stomach to save a daily return trip, and sent home. I got back in the evening, to a street party on my road, flags waving and bottles of Dragon Stout lining the yard wall. Ghana had got through against the odds and the local Ghanaian population was going wild.

This latest onset is still a mystery as I type. It seems there’s something in there, after the ultrasound - a “suspected non-occlusive thrombus” - a blockage that doesn’t entirely block the vein.

I have little doubt that it will be an embolism, aneurysm or a stroke that kills me one day - it’s been pretty firmly established that I am a chronic case, at high risk due to a congenital clotting disorder. Also the course of therapy I’m on - pills called Warfarin - prevents normal clotting, so even a small cut from a kitchen knife can take a long time to heal. If I was in a serious accident, there would be a chance of bleeding to death quickly, my blood-clotting defense system having been undone for my own good. In high dosages, Warfarin is used as rat poison, making them spontaneously bleed to death.

I wonder sometimes if such things are inbuilt, evolutionary - if nature weeds out the weaker specimens and strikes them down with disease. If my body is in essence, trying to stop working. A next-level natural selection that changes the meaning of “survival of the fittest” dramatically; every birth a self-regulating experiment in DNA combination.

It’s a strange thought that I am almost certainly only alive because of medical technology at this point - that my life has been artificially extended. But it definitely draws the finite nature of life into sharp relief, and makes me question what I should be doing with the limited and uncertain amount of remaining days, weeks, years or decades ahead.

81. The Eiffel Tower

This picture was taken on a recent trip back to my family home in Wheaton Aston. These are two gifts I got for my mum years ago.

It’s a common instinct to hunt-and-gather stuff for your mum when you’re a kid. I remember going out on a country walk with my dad and coming back clutching a soggy clump of bluebells with clods of dirt dangling from the roots, and being mystified as to why I had to ask if mum was going to put them in a vase. When dad brought a bunch of flowers home, they were kept in pride of place on the dining table, and aged four or five, I couldn’t understand why mine were put in a drinking glass on the windowsill before being discreetly disposed of. “What’s that?” mum would say. “He wanted to bring you some flowers,” my dad smiled. I could tell there was something going unsaid between them, then mum played along.

Perhaps because my dad always came back with something for mum after one of his rare work trips, I did the same. School excursions to places of note came with a little spending money, and I would always try and pick something up. My limited budget meant it was usually something pretty rubbish, but I’d pore over the different ornaments for a while, trying to divine which was best.

The plastic Eiffel tower came from a school trip to France. My small rural middle school was twinned with another in nearby Brewood, and the similarly-aged pupils from each joined up for the coach trip. Suddenly we were exposed to a lot of new kids.

We stayed in twin rooms in a barracks-like chalet terrace. I don’t remember who I was sharing with, but I do remember that one of those days there came a knock on the back windows. It was a girl called Cathy who I’d had little to do with. I don’t remember much dialogue, but I do remember a very sloppy snog that was, I guess, my first kiss: the strangeness of being so close to someone I didn’t even know, the unfamiliar taste of someone else’s saliva, and the weird feeling of having a girl wriggling her tongue around in my mouth. I remember her coyly saying “see ya”, then running away. And despite the oddness of the experience and the strange reversal of girls suddenly becoming interesting, I was strangely euphoric afterwards and grinned like a fool.

I also remember eating rubbery snails, seeing the rose window of Notre Dame, and experiencing the powerfully sacred atmosphere inside Le Sacre Couer; going up the stairs to the first floor the Eiffel Tower, but not being one of the brave few who went right to the top in the tiny lift. We had a talk from an old Frenchman who’d been present at the D-Day landings, who described killing a sniper to us, and broke down in tears. I didn’t really understand his adult emotions, and it was strange to see a grown-up cry. There’s a video from the trip somewhere, with a clip of me watching him very intently with a pencil pressed to my chin.

This little replica Eiffel Tower is about the cheapest money could buy, but it still sits on the windowsill of the spare room, even though I know my mum doesn’t like it all.

80. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

This is not my book. My copy of this book was a creased, crumpled, well-loved and well-worn paperback with two small face-jewels attached to the cover, placed there while it sat on my bedside table one night as an ex-girlfriend was getting out of her party garb. It has been lent out, forgotten about, and lost. This one arrived in the post this morning. A replacement, in hardback. For posterity.

Any question beginning “what’s your favourite…” is tough to answer. But more often than not when asked my favourite book, this book is part of the very small selection I think of, along with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, “Strangeland” by Tracey Emin, and “Experience” by Martin Amis.

It’s the autobiography of a US author called Dave Eggars - an account of his young life, made unusual by the fact that his parents both died unexpectedly, and Eggars was put in the position of raising his younger brother himself.

He goes to great pains in the brilliantly neurotic and hyper self-aware preface (which starts with a list of rules and suggestions for the readers enjoyment of the book) to point out certain characters are conflated or adapted, and certain passages fictionalised. He talks about the subjective nature of memory, creates a flow-chart of possible readings of what the work means, and makes a facetious list of symbols (sun = mother, moon = father, nosebleed = decay, etc). He includes a brief budget of how much the book cost to write, and discusses whether or not this book is “cashing in” on his life story. There is even a sub section referring to “the knowingness of the author’s self-referentiality”. Right down to the title, this work is attempting to preempt anything could be said about it, both to analyse it’s own qualities and failings, and to sidestep criticism. This is in itself both hilarious and fascinating, and makes it stand out a mile.

I remember reading this whilst couch-surfing in Wolverhampton. I’d had to temporarily move back in with my parents after graduating my MA and running out of cash entirely, and it was driving me a little nuts to have lost my independence, so I would sleep at various friends’ houses, for a while. It was a 45-minute ride on a rickety old single-decker country bus (“The Green Bus Service”) from my parents’ village into the city, and this kept me company along the way. Eggars brings you into his world, his life, his past, his thought process. This is not a dry narrative, but a flourishing, creative, vital telling of a story that seems to joyfully and consistently leap outside the lines of what I expect from a book. It feels real, and even some of the small, wry details are enough to make you laugh out loud or shed tears. His life becomes relevant to how you live your own. Thinking like that is what allows me to write as I do.

I would say, with sincerity, that this book is life-changing. It became an instant classic. If I could, I would buy it as a gift for you. I have done so five times for various friends and relatives. Apparently Jean-Michael Basquiat bought an entire crate of Charlie Parker biographies to give to people who came round to his house. I can understand that kind of enthusiasm when it comes to a book like this one.

Here is a drawing of a stapler:

79. The Crystal

This came out of a 2p pushing machine in the amusements on Whitby’s seafront promenade, two and a half years ago.

I’ve owned one of these before, I think. I get a flicker of memory at how satisfying it is to hold, the weight and feel of the cool glass, and the appealing shape with it’s many smooth, shining facets. I think perhaps I’d won and coveted one of these before on a dimly remembered childhood holiday, maybe on Mersea island, or in Cornwall.

This one was won with a pile of 2p pieces probably equivalent to it’s rough value. I suppose the amusement of playing for it is a bonus. It’s a relationship relic. Perhaps because me and my ex worked together in tandem on the small task of winning it, enjoying ourselves with a shared purpose, for once, in the seaside atmosphere; it feels charged with some glimmer of hope.

I should really throw this away.

78. The Stuck Frame

This picture was taken in St. Malo, France in 2007. It was towards the end of a very happy time that I described before in “The Wine Glasses” episode of this project, so there’s no point in revisiting the same trip as a whole. But this picture is special in it’s own right.

We were walking from the post-La Route Du Rock festival bus back into St Malo in the spitting rain, and found ourselves cutting through an abandoned train station. We were in an unwashed, unfed state of unsleep, and keen to get to our hotel for the night, which was along the sea front about a mile away. Alice stopped to sit and tie her laces on the platform, and I noticed this composition around us as I looked back. But as I took the picture she got her limbs tangled up, lost her balance, and made a kind of amused squeal just as I clicked the shutter. You can’t really see on this digital phone picture, but her eyes are closed and she’s doing an open-mouthed, red-lipped laugh as she flails.

The picture is stuck in the frame - on the right side where the reflection goes strange, it’s gotten wet at some point and the print is stuck to the glass. But, I really like this picture, so I decided to leave it on display in the frame - it’s a lovely moment, and I don’t want to destroy the image by taking it out.

So, this seemingly insignificant instant and that little funny situation is now held behind glass, like a window looking into the past.