Thirteen years ago, must have been, back in Leeds, a few years post Uni, in the final stages of a very messily deteriorating first attempt at happiness, with both of us drunkenly adrift in our own lives, I lived in a back-to-back, two-up-two-down on a short road that backed on to the Royal Park Pub.
We lived directly opposite two members of Leed’s ferociously right-on Chumbawamba, a band by whom I owned a single record, “Pictures of starving children sell records”, which I’d bought several years before in Barrow-in-Furness during an early Anarcho-Punk faze that had quickly ceded to an interest in all things Noise-related after seeing Big Black and the Butthole Surfers within a week of each other, a year or so later.
At this point Chumbawamba were approaching the height of their popularity, with Brit-pop friendly, laddish chantathon “Tubthumping”, an ironic paean to hardman drinking culture, just a year or so away from getting them on Top Of The Pops. Their tour bus, a big, white, surprisingly pristine transit van was often parked in the road, various members of the band milling about.
I had no interest in Chumbawamba musically or otherwise. In fact, on a discursive level I despised them, saw their mild, sententious Anarchism as just one more form of bourgeois, puritanical, politically-correct hectoring. Sometimes Chumbawamba had a kickabout in the street. I particularly despised this pseudo-proletarian acting out, this little bit of patronising Everymanism. I despised football. Football was being recuperated and rebranded after years of rightful neglect. Football as a palliative: more effective, intellectual and radical forms of collectivity being dis and then re-assembled on the most banal, toothless level of popular culture: sport.
Chumbawamba wanted to build and create, unite and fight, but for me the battle was already lost and the only possibility for pleasure or protest left was wallowing in abjection, in libidinizing chaos, incoherence and loss. In systematically stripping away every safe vantage point in thought, in constantly undermining any foundation on which a stable or coherent self might be built. I constantly re-read, with an obsessive fervour, Artaud’s short, savage harrowing of humanist presumption “ All writing is Pigshit!” around this time. A Life, in the generic sense by which that term is understood, was an unconscionable compromise and a wilful self-blinding. The only real freedom was found in freefall.
On another level I envied Chumbawamba and my envy was a significant if unexamined component in my scorn for them. I was interested in their burgeoning fame, their particular combination of popularity and political credibility. In some small way they had got there, they were taking on and being taken into the system without sacrificing too much of their aesthetic or their beliefs. In lots of ways I fantasized about just such a degree and type of acclaim. I had decided that my route out of dead end jobs and poverty-level wages was writing, but was unprepared to write anything that was not consonant with my experiences, no matter how much money it would bring, nor would I sell myself. The world must come to me. I was stymied by hubris and fear, swinging between desolation at my own pathetic inability and moments of delirious over-confidence within the space of a few minutes labouring alone with my biros and scraps of scrawled on paper. They were committed and active, a group of mutually supportive, focused friends, while I was growing more and more isolated and estranged everyday, surrounded by smart-arsed, hard drinking ironists, working in a warehouse, unable to address, for all the talking and all the eloquence we were capable of, for all the arguments, all the accusations, all the wild claims and counter claims, those things which were most urgent to our well-being. I imagined that in lots of ways I was the kind of person Chumbawamba would admire were they to get to know me, if we ever did more than occasionally nod at each other as we passed. They would admire me, but also be chastened by the rigour of my quest to live in accord with difficult ideas, abjuring all false comforts no matter the cost.
One Friday night, must’ve been Summer, it was warm I remember, so about six months before we finally split up for good, we got even more ruinously drunk than usual in The Cockpit in Leeds, left earlier than usual due to the tension in the air, because of the weird awkwardness among the group we hung around with that probably stemmed from the fact that she had recently slept with a couple of them, something which, really, I knew, but something which I was unable to look at directly and which sat instead off to one side of mind, exerting a sickening, invisible pressure on all my thoughts.
Perhaps it was this tension and the repression that accompanied it that did it, perhaps it was just the heat and the quantity of Special Brew. Probably it was both and in the taxi on the way home I started to feel sick. Every time the taxi took a corner, every time it stopped at the lights and then accelerated away again I experienced these tiny effects of inertia and momentum as seismic and overwhelming. The short journey home, past the University and down the side of Hyde Park was a marathon battle against my nausea and I was sweating profusely, gulping down air from the open window with my eyes closed. The moment the taxi pulled up a little short of the end of the street I came sprawling out of the cab in a tangle of long pale limbs and dangling hair and vomited. Then I want staggering round the corner heading back to the house, keys out already, anticipating the lengthy drunken fumble with the lock on the security grill.
Chumbawamba were in the street, freshly back from a gig, or a rehearsal, playing football. I weaved between them, eyes down, got to the door, just about got it open, the pressure building convulsively, then threw up again, leaning forward and projecting a long glistening arc out onto the weedslashed pavement, spattering my legs and boots. I half fell into the living room and stumbled around the sofa as one of them, face full of concern, came toward the open doorway asking, “are you alright mate?” I had now opened the door that lead up the stairs to the bathroom I was so desperate to get to and instead of responding I simply launched a litre of vomit up them and then went stumbling up after it, leaving Rachael to come apologetically, wearily in behind me, assuring them that no, really, I was fine.
They went back to playing football as I clung on to the toilet bowl and we went spinning off through space together. I could hear them, just below me, having fun in the road.
Me and Chumbawamba, on the path to sure success.