What I said back then:
Nothing. Another one which didn’t make the cut…
What I think now:
That first flat. No, hang on – I did that one.
This is, in the beginning, another Raeburn Place memory. The aforementioned three blokes in a flat didn’t have much in the way of interior décor; in fact, I think we only ever put up one poster, but it was a big one. Where Zoe’s flatmates had a room dominated by the disturbingly blue face of Phil Collins (oh, yes – names can be named if necessary), we had a Billy Bragg poster.
A bloody big one, it was, advertising Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. Monochrome, I think – I would have remembered if it had those Penguin orange stripes on it. I don’t know its provenance, although it was ours, not the flat’s, and I’m a little intrigued by it – it wasn’t exactly a mainstream release (although exactly the kind of record a bunch of students might be expected to own) and posters can’t have been plentiful given that Riot had – if I remember correctly – been initially a cassette-only release.
But there it was, the giant safety lamp metaphorically illuminating our dingy kitchen during that final year. Many a culinary disgrace unfolded beneath its unblinking stare, including the famous middle of the night chips, the remains of which I will never forget scraping out of the drain in the week before we left.
So far, then, an entirely unmusical memory – we didn’t own any actual Billy Bragg music between us, I don’t think. But a strange thing happened because of it. If Billy ever came up in conversation, or appeared on the radio, my reaction was always the same: “Oh, I like him; he’s good”.
And, it eventually turned out, he was good. I knew ‘A New England’ of course, but not his version, and then a couple of things happened – I heard ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’ on the radio one evening, and I remember staring open-mouthed at the radio as this novel played itself out over the space of three and a half minutes; then I heard ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’, and I was sold.
I became obsessed with learning ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’ – I managed it eventually, even throwing in my own improvised opening, much to my delight, only to find that he changes the words every few weeks, and my carefully memorised version is as current as an East German flag.
There’s probably not a lot of Billy Bragg played in Prince George, but most of what there is would be emanating from my various electronic devices (or occasionally from my guitar) – a couple of years ago, my dad’s Amazon voucher was partly spent on the marvellous compilation ‘Must I Paint you a Picture?’ and all those fading memories of vinyl and cassette versions were restored to pin-sharp clarity.
I can still see that poster, though, staring back at me through all these years, making me think of the rain battering off our tiny kitchen window while I struggled to make something edible out of what was left in the cupboards. It’s a memory which smells of the top deck of buses and sounds like the wind whistling through the crack in the skylight, and it still has the power to make me stop and smile.
On the strength of a symbolic poster I decided that this Billy Bragg must be a decent bloke. Nice to know I was right.