Friday, January 16, 2004

When I started my ‘guest blog’ category in November last year with an album review by my Dutch friend Bram, I knew I wanted to carry on the idea. The only problem was, who would I ask next?

Stuart Ian Burns, whose blog Feeling Listless has been a firm favourite of mine for quite a while now, answered that question by asking me to contribute to his review of 2003. At last! Someone who couldn’t possibly turn me down!

Stuart and I have corresponded a little via email and comments over the months, but I have to admit that, like many bloggers whom I read regularly, I know little about him other than that he’s a very interesting person who likes many of the things I like. I have no idea how old Stuart is, what he looks like, or even where he originally comes from, but somehow, that doesn’t matter. In the blogosphere, we are brethren united by a desire to communicate. I know all I need to know – that his voice chimes with mine in a pleasingly synergistic manner.

And so I shall now leave you in Stu's more than capable hands.

It was my third year at university. Although in my second year I'd lived with the four horsewomen of the apocalypse, I was sharing a house in my final year with some good people – two trainee teachers, a post-grad doing something complicated about feminism with many words in its course title and another girl working on her languages. Although I suppose only some of us were really friends, the rest of us were at least civil towards one another and there were few arguments that I remember.

Of all of them, I felt closest to Anita, the girl on the language course. She had been an early substitution, our original housemate deciding (probably correctly) that working in her parents’ bakery was a better prospect than spending any more time at university. Anita was half English and half Tai, but could speak French, German and was studying Spanish to polish that off as well. She also knew a smattering of Serb because her boyfriend was fighting a particular war that was happening at that particular time. She was the queen of the long phone call and often they would be conducted in at least three different languages and, depending on which household she was speaking to, they'd be mixed back and forth like she was some vocal DJ. Anita was fluent in them all which was either deeply impressive or depressing depending upon your mood.

Which makes Anita sound very heavy and potentially aloof. But she was massively down to earth (because of her mother I think). I was impressed when I first met her because she'd spent the previous year studying in Berlin and had been a tourist guide for Christo's wrapping of the German Reitstag. I sat for ten minutes as she described everything in great detail and somehow managed to make me the feel a sense of history being formed.

As the weeks and months passed she was just a great person to be around, so even as the group inevitably dissolved as people found friendships and relationships outside the household, she was the one person I really wanted to make time for and was disappointed when she couldn't make time for me. Some nights we'd play games together. Board games – the kind you get at Christmas but can't be bothered playing because the instructions are too complicated. We'd go for walks just to talk things through when anything big had happened in the house which I hadn't been around for. As always I was within and without the situation that way – not close enough to the situation to be involved.

Some afternoons when we were supposed to be studying we'd sit in her bedroom, she'd have her guitar (she could do that as well) and she'd sing and I'd listen. I haven't had many perfect moments in my life. Top of the Eiffel Tower. Touchline at the Commonwealth Games. Finding out I'd got into University. Christmas. But when I was sitting on the end of that bed, watching her sing – time seemed to stop. I was probably in love with her, although I didn't notice it that the time. Infatuated I might have thought, but only in that silly way when men get infatuated with women who pay them any attention. She was far too good for my low self esteem to handle anyway.

Then we sang together and for some reason my grump managed to chime with her soprano and didn't sound all that bad. And she had me sing. I don't remember what I sang (actually I do but I'd be embarrassed to say what, other than Alanis Morissette used to be the Canadian version of her) but somehow it seemed to work. And we laughed and talked and she showed me poetry she'd written about her Serbian boyfriend, underlining for me the meaning of the word platonic. It was nothing really, a couple of hours and it was forgotten by us both within days. The year ended three months later and I never saw her again.

Three years later and I'm pining for University. In the intervening years I hadn't managed find a proper full time job and had somehow managed to end up working in the art gallery, libraries and universities researching art and art history. I was also working my way through a series of night classes, because somewhere in my being I felt the need to continuing learning.

After a few semesters studying creative writing I decided that the next step would be acting (which doesn't really follow I know but I think I'd been watching 'In The Bleak Midwinder' and decided that the actor's life was in fact for me). The first week had mostly been improvisations. I remember a plane crash and a beach being involved. At the start of the following week's session, the twenty of us who were left marvelled as the tutor told stories of who else had shuffled through the course, including one Melanie C of The Spice Girls.

That week was to be about storytelling. The tutor asked for volunteers to describe their perfect day. When none were forthcoming he chose people. He selected Lisa the attractive paralegal who was sitting directly opposite. She was from across the Mersey and I think everyone had noticed her before. Her story was about how she had asked her abrasive husband for a divorce in the exact spot, near a duckpond in a park, where he had proposed to her a few years before. There was a majesty to it; she still loved him but it was just too much.

And then the finger pointed to me. In a position like that you feel the need to be thematically consistent. As the trainee actors looked at me, my mind began to race looking for something which if not actually as good as the story I'd just heard at least had a similar passion. There were choices. Ways to go. But they all felt wrong somehow, like I couldn't do them justice. Then Anita popped into my head. I talked about the house, about the friendships around her. Then I talked about that afternoon, on her bed, and that perfect moment for me as I'd watched her sing.

I looked around the room as I described what had happened, this little moment which seemed so long ago, and I realised they were listening. Not just being polite but actually listening. This hadn't happened before. Not in front of a group this big. It felt weird and strange and good. As the story drew to its anti-climax they started to ask questions. Primarily they wanted to know what had happened between Anita and me. They all wanted us to get together somehow and that she had been the love of my life.

Inadvertently, in the way I'd described it, how I'd embellished the emotion, they'd decided that something else must have happened. How could it not? How could it not? In telling the story I'd somehow come to terms with what hadn't happened and because I'd interested all these people I hardly knew in something which had been relatively fleeting and didn't mean all that much, except for me, in there somewhere my self-esteem took a few steps upward. Then I wondered if anything could have happened in the few weeks between her breaking up with the Serbian and falling for the Frenchman. If I hadn't thought of her as been unattainable because I wasn't possibly as good as she was, if I'd thought better of myself … could we have?

Two years later and I was sitting on the News Tribune, in the main stand, watching the Netball at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. After two years of build up, training courses and interviews and plenty of travelling I'd been given a position in the Press Room at the Manchester Evening News Arena. The journalism night school course had finally paid off. I was with a group of people of varying backgrounds from even farther afield than I commuted each day and they just loved being there. More than that in the few brief days we'd been together we'd banded together as a group really well. All of the unspoken things both work related or otherwise, the shorthand which usually takes years to build up in a 'normal' situation seemed to develop mimetically. And I felt part of the group, actually within it, not on the outside which had happened so many times as far back as that third year house at university. I was making the effort and it was working.

Everyone liked being on The Tribune (over the actual press room or the photography bench on the touch line). It allowed you to watch the games, meet the media as you passed the results out (ooh look it's Diane Oxbury from NorthWest Tonight!) and more importantly it was only place you could sit and talk without really being interrupted (mostly). It was in these moments we would giddily say that this was the best group of people we'd worked with and how we wished we could take each other to our next job. It was difficult not to gush. As with all groups there were some people you would get on better with than others and has always been the case throughout my life I was hanging about with the girls more. It just felt more comfortable.

This particular afternoon I was sitting with Maggie. To be honest I can't tell you much about Maggie other than she lived in the Manchester area and she was just trying to find a job after leaving college and she had a boyfriend. It was an artificial closeness within the group, I suppose now. We didn't learn all that much 'back story' about one another. The one thing I do remember is how much Maggie reminded me of Anita, and not because they were both Asian. Like Anita, Maggie somehow understood my sarcasm and misunderstanding for comic effect.

Apropos of nothing, as always happened in these bitty conversations between quarters she mentioned that she thought I was quite a confident person and how relaxed I'd been. I told her it hadn't always been the case. That I'd always had a reasonably low self esteem. But that one night, when I was doing an acting class at University I'd been asked to tell a story about my perfect day and … suddenly the telling of one story had become another story about something else, and in telling it this time I had seen how far I'd come. I wanted to mention that as well, but the third quarter of the match between Canada and Sri Lanka broke the bubble in the middle of a sentence I would never get back to because statistics got in the way. Just like Anita I never saw Maggie again, but that's what these temporary friendships are like – they're there when you need them and over before they get boring. The trouble is that you can go through life knowing a lot of people not very well.

So here I am telling you the story again to you, because Suw asked me to write about anything and this seemed like the only thing I could write about. For some reason even the smallest stories about nothing in particular can have a way of perpetuating themselves and becoming something else because of the way they're told and who they're being told to. For some people they're a way of comparing who they were then to where they are now. In writing this I've learnt all kinds of things about myself and I'll not doubt talk about those when I inevitably end up mentioning to someone about the time I did some guestblogging for a friend. Once I've explained to them what a blog is of course, and why I would be writing someone else’s …

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