I still see these around the city every once in a while.
Not quite sure if this would have been a giant exercise in ego massage or a genuinely exciting gathering of great minds. I hope it was the latter.
Oh, to have a whole house and garden full of furniture in the shape of famous landmarks…
This is the coolest bench ever.
Not sure about everything he says, but I definitely like the idea about sharing things in everyday life.
This article was in the Observer today. It reminded me of my first experiences of London, except that I didn’t go quite as far down the road of drink and depresssion as he did…
I was in trouble. It was one of those deep underground stations with a passenger lift, the kind that used to have a booth inside for the guard. I flashed my pass to the man, and he frowned. “Show me that picture again,” he said. I did. He frowned harder. “They’re looking for that guy. They’re looking for you.” He pointed, glared, and then broke into a huge smile. But the fear had taken hold, a new, plunging, suffocating feeling I was becoming familiar with. The lift bumped to a stop at street level, and I threw myself out into the daylight. London was killing me.
This was the early autumn of 1985, and I’d just taken up a place at Chelsea College of Art. It was a big deal for Mabel Fletcher Technical College in Liverpool, where I’d studied my foundation course, and an even bigger one for my family and friends. Nobody had been anywhere near higher education or knew what to expect: least of all me, as it turned out. A few weeks in and I found myself sleeping on a dining table, armed with a saucepan, in a dank basement flat off the All Saints Road.
Because I had no idea what a hall of residence was, and because I was – and still am – a gifted procrastinator, I’d given scant thought to the practicalities of living in London on a grant. I showed up at Chelsea on the first day of term with a suitcase, and a copy of Loot. I didn’t know anybody in London, not a soul. I didn’t get London. An innocent abroad. A dickhead. Take your pick.
It was the worst possible start to a new life because, instead of getting to know my cool and confident fellow students, or making my mark with our esteemed painting tutors, I was flailing around trying to gain a toehold in the city. For the first few months I was homeless, of no fixed abode, living out of that suitcase. Some of my fellow students were kind enough to let me flop on their sofas and floors; I bunked into halls, even resorting to sleeping in cold enamel baths when I couldn’t find anyone to let me into a room; one of those esteemed painting tutors took pity and let me stay with him and his family in Camden for a week. His daughter practised the cello while I tasted hummus and an avocado for the first time.
When I found a basement flat – or rather, the sub-let room of a flat – in Notting Hill, I thought I’d cracked it. The landlord was eccentric: he kept the place subfusc, drank all day dressed in his black silk kimono, and seemed trapped in the 1960s. All very Performance, and I could handle that. But my bed consisted of a seething, mycotoxic mattress on the floor, there were no locks on the doors, and the landlord soon came snooping around, making excuses as to why he needed to gain entry. After a week of this, I did a runner one morning, caught the first Circle Line train, and sat orbiting London until everywhere began to open for the day.
Being skint and living from hand to mouth didn’t get in the way of my social life. I gravitated towards boozers, and learned how to get pissed for free on obliterating house white. We crashed shop openings on the King’s Road or private views around Cork Street, me in my Gas Board anorak or my dad’s outsized corduroy jacket, NHS bins and tangled hair. I was thrown out of many designer boutiques and galleries, but usually not before I’d got a drink.
Being skint didn’t get in the way of exploring the city, either. I became a walker. London seemed such a resonant, haunted city: I strolled along Cheyne Walk and thought of Whistler; Dylan Thomas had lived round the corner from the art school; I used to see George Best outside the fire station every morning, waiting for a lift as he served out his driving ban. This was all time well spent.
Still, I wasn’t getting much work done. I’d swapped Baudelaire’s l’horrible fardeau du temps for blackouts, unexplained contusions and broken teeth. The whitewashed corridor space I’d been allotted at Chelsea gawped blankly back at me on the rare occasions I climbed into my boiler suit and thought about painting. Drinking made all my floundering and indoor camping tolerable, softening the floors and sofas I landed on. But instead of fending off loneliness and depression, it only fuelled and magnified them.
I remember one tutor, solicitous and concerned by my appearance, asking what was up. Reeling off my catalogue of woes, I mentioned how broke I was. He turned to the big studio window and swept his arm across the rooftops of SW3. “There’s plenty of rich women out there. Why don’t you marry one of them?”
As if they’d have had me. I noticed how people, afraid I’d hit on them for anything from somewhere to crash to a ciggie, would dive for cover. I don’t blame them. I stank. I developed pityriasis rosea, my skin erupting in angry lesions. But the stuff people couldn’t see was worse. I experienced what I can only describe as “falling off the world” syndrome. Crossing over Albert Bridge, I’d panic at the sight of the “Troops must break step” sign; only the law of gravity was keeping my feet on the ground, and I might lose my grip at any moment. I imagined plummeting upwards, falling into grey skies and out into space. I collapsed once on the Piccadilly Line, crawling up the escalators and inching my way across the floor of the ticket hall at Holborn, coming to a halt before two black shiny boots. A policeman hoisted me up and half-carried me to St Bart’s, where I was put on a drip, given warm sugary milk and kept under observation. I remember the smell of clean sheets, and one of the nurses noticing I had odd socks on.
I’d gone from happy-go-lucky to paranoid wreck in six months, but eventually things began to turn around. I got part-time jobs, began to cut down on the benders, and found a quiet flat-share. Some semblance of orderly life worked wonders. There was no great mystery to it; simply a realisation that there’s a price to be paid for too much making it up as you went along.
London didn’t kill ME. It didn’t even spit me out at the end of art school, and I ended up staying for 13 years. Like any big city dweller that sticks it out long enough, I’d often catch glimpses of my younger self, this person that used to be me, all over the place, and still do. I’m surprised and grateful, given the condition I often found myself in back then, that these are only figurative hauntings.
Even today, the smell of linseed oil and turpentine, or the opening bars of “West End Girls”, is enough to rewind me to that time and place where I completely lost my balance. And maybe this works both ways.
I remember walking down the King’s Road one morning and realising I probably wasn’t a painter after all. I immediately felt lighter. I’d already started writing, badly, in fits and starts, and had taken to carrying slim volumes of poems around with me wherever I went. I was already surrounding myself with clues to my future, feeling my way forward, mostly blindly and unaware, but on this particular morning I arrived at the art school and was immediately collared by Jake, our Trinidadian doorman, and guardian of the threshold. “Hey, what have you got to smile about, Mister Farley?” he asked me, and I knew then that everything was going to be alright.