What I said back then:
Nothing. Inexplicably, this did not feature ten years ago. Of course, I hadn’t written the book ten years ago.
What I think now:
Some little time ago, I sat down to write a short story, based loosely on a school exchange trip I once went on. Several years later, that story is now a large novel. It’s about many things, including the unreliability of memory, and it has a number of threads woven through it, including a song by Genesis.
In 1978, I really did go on a bus trip to Germany. At one point, we really did spend the evening in a pub, dancing badly to unfashionable pop music. German musical taste seemed a little out of step with our own – this was 1978; what was circulating around the Year Area were Clash and Buzzcocks albums; what we heard in Germany was mainly Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’.
And this. I had always known that this song reminded me of Germany, and when I sat down to write about that period, I had it in my head to feature some of the songs I remember from those two weeks. I sketched out a scene in the very pub where we had danced (and drunk) the night away, although my characters were up to things which none of us were (I’m fairly sure) in real life.
As soon as I started to write it out, though, I felt a need to hear the song. YouTube is a wonderful thing.
A strange thing happened to me, however. Associating myself strongly with the time and place, and listening to the actual music had a visceral effect on me. I can recall the sensation of it even now; I felt, for want of a better word, shaken. Not just transported mentally back to Obersuhl, but somehow physically there again.
As I listened, I began to feel a deep sadness, almost grief. I think I was in mourning for the lost innocence of those days, for the friends I had then who were now gone, in one way or another, for the things I might have done and the person I might have been. I don’t mean that I’m in any way unhappy how my life has turned out; just that it might have been different, and I had for the briefest of moments, had a glimpse of it.
And it made me think about the story. It’s possible that there is some long-suppressed memory associated with ‘Follow You, Follow Me’; I doubt it, but there might be. What if, I wondered, my characters have suppressed memories of that time? What if…
And so a book was written.
Well, a book was written. I am still oddly affected by the song; it can bring me close to tears for no reason I can pinpoint. I love it unconditionally, which is odd for an otherwise unremarkable throwaway pop song partly written by Phil Collins in 1978.
I think it speaks to me more than any other song about the potency of what Noël Coward called ‘cheap music’. Just because a piece of music may be unremarkable, you must not underestimate what it is capable of. If there are suppressed memories there, they’ll stay repressed, thanks. I have my song, and I have my book.
I didn’t listen to it while I wrote this; it would have made it harder. I don’t understand it, but I like that I don’t understand it.