Friday, 26 September 2014

Why The Holy Bible is (and probably always will be) My Favourite Album

I love this album so much I had it grafted to my FACE.

When people talk about their favourite albums, you don't generally expect to hear the words "it features songs about the death penalty, prostitution and the Holocaust."  But my favourite album really does feature those things.  Maybe some readers of this blog will be surprised by that - after all, I gush over McBusted (be glad I didn't make a sex joke there) and other much cheerier pop/pop-rock music.  I'm an ABBA fan.  I love the Beatles.  I've seen Take That live four times and if they tour again as a three-piece now that Jason has left, I have every intention of making it five.  But the Manic Street Preachers have always been the band that changed my life.  And The Holy Bible is their masterpiece.

 I first heard the band's third album - released in 1994 - back in 1998, when I was 15, going on 16 years old.  I hated it.  It was stark and scary and not my cup of tea in the slightest.  My younger sister had recently gotten into the Manics and she thought the album was incredible.  I couldn't have disagreed more.  In fact, I made her switch it off before the end, because it was "hurting my ears."

The previous year, when the Manics had released Everything Must Go, I had listened to every single from it and loved each one.  Although I didn't buy the album, I used to play Design For Life every Saturday on the jukebox at our local bowling alley.  That and The Universal by Blur and, slightly less cool, Someday by Eternal...

So as you can imagine, I was a little perplexed that the band whose most recent singles I had really liked, had previously released an album that, to my 15 year old ears, was almost totally un-listenable.

Fast forward to May 1999.  I was on study leave, cramming for my GCSEs.  I was 16 and going through all the typical angst of that age; the world was cruel, life was unfair and someone really needed to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  But not me, because I was too busy trying to decide which of the male members of the cast of Friends I fancied the most.

For the record, it was ALL OF THEM.

Bored of my revision and even more bored of listening to the same CDs over and over, I did what all older siblings do - decided to nick something from my sister.  After browsing her CDs for a while, I couldn't quite settle on anything and decided to sit on the edge of her bed and stare at the wall.  Told you I was a hormonal teen...

Anyway, she had this poster on her wall with a picture of the Manics on it.  The picture looked like this:

It ate my soul.  Or something.

For reasons I'd like to say were above teenage lust, I couldn't take my eyes off it.  And given that it was a Holy Bible poster, I decided to give that bloody awful album another try.

What happened next was genuinely (and I say this with no irony whatsoever) life-changing.

Here was this band I thought were pretty good and they were singing about the world.  And not cutesy little ditties about fancying a girl or going on a night out; these were songs that weren't afraid to tackle massive, uncomfortable subjects.  Anorexia, political corruption, the world's worst atrocities...  No subject was off-limits.  That little voice in my head I mentioned earlier, shrieking "the world is unfair and someone should do something" was stunned into silence by a band who were, in their own way, just by taking issues and forcing them to music.  They were standing up and saying "music shouldn't shy away from talking about this stuff."  That was, to me, utterly revolutionary.

That's not to say that my second listen was a comfortable one.  The album was the aural equivalent of being smacked around the head.  It makes your skin prickle.  It invades your comfort zone and fills it with anger and bleakness.  It affected me more than any other album ever has and that is why it's my favourite album in the world.  Nothing has ever done that to me before or since.  Sure, I've heard albums that have blown me away, musically.  I've listened to lyrics that have made me think.  But nothing - nothing - has ever bashed me in the face the way The Holy Bible did on that second listen.

The songs are furious (with notable exceptions in She Is Suffering and This Is Yesterday).  The stark, industrial sounds on something like The Intense Humming of Evil force you to sit up and take notice, whilst becoming increasing aware of your own sense of unease.  It's not an easy listen.  It's something that grabs you by the balls - whether you own a pair or not.


Of course the album is largely the lyrical work of Richey James Edwards, the Manics' co-lyricist, mouthpiece and (when his amp was plugged in) rhythm guitarist.  Ravaged by alcoholism and depression, his words on The Holy Bible are as stark as they are ferociously intelligent.  "I am an architect, they call me a butcher.  I am a pioneer, they call me primitive.  I am purity, they call me perverted..."  Arguably one of the greatest, most insightful lyricists of the modern age, The Holy Bible is Richey's masterpiece, although some of the more personal subjects the album broaches only serve to increase your discomfort at listening.  4st 7lbs, for example, may be written from the viewpoint of a girl, but Richey's issues with food/weight have been well documented and at times, listening to his words feels like prying on something deeply private.

It's hard not to listen to the Manics' third album without taking note of the fact that it was their last with Richey, before he disappeared on February 1st 1995 and was never seen again.  Listening to the band's next release, Everything Must Go, directly afterwards is like a strange combination of relief, triumph over adversity and crushing loss.  For the record, Everything Must Go is quite probably my second favourite album of all time...

Everything changed for me, that day in 1999.  I researched politicians I'd never given head-space to before.  I thought about various issues in new and challenging ways.  To this day, The Holy Bible remains a reference point for me when it comes to a whole raft of subjects, from personal issues, to war, to modern-day politics.  Words can't express how utterly vital that album has been to my development into the person I am now.  It's the album that took me from being a casual listener of the Manics' music, to being the fully fledged obsessive I am now.  It's the album that made me realise that no subject is too big to be tackled in music or writing.  When you think of more recent albums that broach big issues - political or otherwise - it's hard not to see The Holy Bible as a trailblazer; light years before its time and yet an album which couldn't have been borne out of any other time, or by any other band.

The Holy Bible is now twenty years old, but it has lost none of its rage or potency.  When I heard that the Manics had decided to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary by playing it in full, for the first time ever, there was no question in my mind:  I had be there.  Needed to be there.

Thankfully, my brilliant gig-buddy and fellow obsessive, Kirstie, was able to secure us two tickets for the band's second night at London Roundhouse in December, before tickets ran out for the entire tour.

THANK YOU, KIRST!  And yes, I will be wearing this outfit again...

I am pretty sure that hearing this beast of an album live, in full, for the first and only time in my life is going to be an emotional experience.  I expect to cry at This Is Yesterday, because... Well, I always do when they play it live.  This time, though, it will have an extra layer of emotional depth.  Here's an album featuring the furious, intelligent, often deeply moving words of a man who is no longer here to participate in its anniversary.  I wonder what Richey would have made of the fact that his masterpiece has the ability to sell-out an entire tour within minutes (don't get me started on touts already selling tickets at extortionate prices - touts are SCUM, ruining live music for those who genuinely love it)?  I wonder how he'd react to the knowledge that a few years ago, viewers of BBC's Newsnight voted The Holy Bible the best album of all time?  He's not here to answer that, but I can tell you how it makes me feel as a Manics fan:  Immensely proud.

So happy birthday, The Holy Bible (belated, since it was released in August).  You're a life-changing album.  You're a scary, uncomfortable smack in the face.  And I love you.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Decade Away From The Meaning Of Life...

Cheers Google.  Even though this is... Maybe a bit scary?

Today is my birthday.  Today, I am one decade away from the meaning of life.  Or, to those who aren't as nerdy, today I am 32.  I feel old, if I'm honest with you.

Speaking of honesty, let's assess the situation.  When I was a teenager, I had plans.  I had pretty much my whole life worked out by the age of fourteen.  I was going to meet Lee from 911 when I was eighteen.  We were going to get married when I was twenty one and we'd have our first baby when I was twenty two.  I was going to be a famous star of musical theatre, who was also a well-loved writer in her spare time.  Because in spite of the whole "star of musical theatre, married to a celebrity, mother of four (yes, I planned four children and yes, I had named them all already)" thing, I intended to have a luxurious amount of spare time.  Not sure how, but hey.  I was fourteen.  What did I know?!

Almost two decades later, here I am.  Not married to Lee from 911, or indeed anyone else.  Not a star of musical theatre, but a nursery nurse, earning a salary that doesn't allow me to rent a place by myself, hence I'm sitting at my parents' kitchen table writing this, wondering whether I might have moved out by the time I hit forty.  No children to speak of and although I've had three books published, "well-loved writer" might be pushing it a bit, as far as descriptions of my writing career go.

It would be easy - dangerously easy, in fact - to sit and mope.  It would be easy to give up and feel like the world's biggest failure.  It can be pretty hard to watch friends and family spread their wings, meet partners, settle down and start families whilst I sit here, feeling as though someone pressed the "pause" button on my life and then lost the batteries from the remote.

But an amazing thing happened to me two years ago when I turned thirty.  I realised that life hadn't paused at all.  Okay, there are things - big things - I wish I could change overnight.  But I can't.  All I can do is work towards them.  And that's why most of my spare time is spent writing.  I'm aiming to make it my career and you know what?  I will.  Failure is not an option when you're this passionate about something.  It means too much to me to ever give up on it.

Look!  PRESS COVERAGE.  Woohoo!

The thing is, whilst I've got my eye on the big publishing-prize, I've refused to ignore the little things.  You have to pay attention to the little things.  Alisha's Attic said so (and that reference dates me terribly).

The little things like spending time with friends and family.  Walking the dog through the woods.  Having weekends away and just being silly and enjoying myself.  Sometimes, it's easy to forget that if I had a husband and kids, it wouldn't be quite as easy to disappear to Butlin's with Lizzie every other month.  It might not allow me time to shriek with excitement every time the Manics announce a tour and just pick a date and decide "I'M GOING AND THAT'S THAT."

I always used to be a bit freaked out about the idea of growing older and not having achieved some of the life goals I set for myself when I was still young and naive enough to think that adulthood was easy.  I still want those things, of course- although I've given up on Lee from 911 - but I'm old (and dare I say wise?!) enough to be grateful for the amazing things I have in my life.

I have my health.  I have my family and I have awesome friends.  I have a roof over my head and a job.  I have survived some of the worst crap life can throw at you and come out stronger.  I've learnt not to care if my thighs look a bit wobbly when I put on a swimming costume.  I've learnt to speak my mind (politely), even if my opinion goes against the grain.  I've started realising that trying to be cool is the most futile waste of anyone's time there is.  I have no desire to follow trends or fit in.  I'm just me and the best thing about getting older is that in spite of the things I don't yet have, I like me and I like being me.  

So here's to getting older, even if your plans have gone a bit askew.  I've grown into myself, like growing into that massive school blazer your parents inevitably buy you at the start of Year 7, even though it's unlikely to fit until Year 11.  I like who I am and I'm positive about achieving my goals in the future.  After all, the fact that the things I want haven't happened yet doesn't have to be a negative thing; it just means all that excitement is yet to come!  Whatever will be, will be.

And realising that is probably the best birthday present I could give myself.

Now let's shut up with all this naval-gazing and go and gorge on cake.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Happy "Internet Friend Day!"

Yep.  I'm totally in a gang with some bikers I met online.  Honest.

According to Twitter, today is "Internet Friend Day."  And because I believe everything I read on Twitter, I thought I'd write about it.

Let's go back in time... *dreamy harp music and pretty lights*

Over a decade ago (if I've got my maths right and to be fair, I rarely have...), I was bored one evening and decided to sign up to the official Manic Street Preachers Internet forum, in search of like-minded obsessives fans to talk to.  After logging on, I discovered that there were a lot of trolls on that forum.  But one user jumped out at me.  Not literally - that would have been scary.  Her username was "Snogmenicky" - a reference to a bit of a crush on the band's bassist, Nicky Wire.  But it wasn't her snazzy online name that intrigued me.  It was her location.  Devon.  

I'm based in Cornwall and frankly, I haven't met many Manics fans down here.  "Devon is only next door," I reasoned, so I paid special interest to her posts on the forum.  She seemed nice; funny, clever and not afraid to put the online trolls in their place.  One night, a week or two later, I noticed that she was getting a bit of grief from one of the worst trolls and I decided to wade in.  Afterwards, she and I got chatting and I casually asked her if she was from Devon (as though I had heard some sort of Internet rumour and wanted clarification... in hindsight, it was a stupid question).  I can still remember her exact reply all these years later: "Yes, I come from the land where the accent is so thick."  Whether she meant thick as in broad, or thick as in dim-sounding, I still don't know, because I never bothered to ask.  I simply thought: "This poor, unsuspecting girl is definitely going to be my Manics fan friend."

From then on, we'd seek one another out on the forum and chat for hours.  It seemed inevitable that we should eventually  meet up.  And as luck would have it, "Snogmenicky" (or "Kirstie," as most people tend to call her...), was bloody lovely in person.  We were soon planning regular meet-ups and in 2005, we finally got to go to a Manics gig together:

My sister (pictured: middle) joined us. I don't know why I look so annoyed in this photo.

In the nine years since that first gig, we've been to several more together.  And we make a point of dressing as weirdly as possible:

Kirstie and I have become incredibly close as the years have gone by.  She's one of my dearest friends and I simply can't imagine life without her. We practically have our own language when it comes to the Manics and we have so many brilliant shared memories of gigs and road trips, it's hard to pick a favourite.  Kirstie and I can laugh so hard, we border on hysterical.  We can snap at one another through tiredness or "hangriness" and then be mortified enough to want to apologise almost immediately, because we don't want to hurt one another.  We've stayed up late, putting the world to rights more times than I care to count.  And we've sat up at the breakfast table, mugs of tea in our hands and put the world to rights all over again the next morning.  She is still that sweet yet feisty girl I spotted online and just knew I wanted to be friends with and I am so, so glad that we are.  And she's not the only Internet friend I have...

You see, those horrible trolls I mentioned earlier eventually made the official Manics forum an unpleasant place to be.  And so, I decided to look for another place to "hang out" online.  There was an unofficial forum that seemed to be pretty well known, so I signed up for that one instead.  I met loads of people through that place.  Some of whom I'm still in touch with.  Some of whom I drifted apart from over the years.  And some of whom... Well, the less said about that the better.  But one of the people I would chat to now and then was a really nice girl - again, very genuine, clever and a bit feisty - called Lydia.  She was known as MsManic on the forum and with my username being mrsmanics, we sometimes caused confusion. She was from Plymouth which was, in my eyes, just up the road (well, an hour's drive away, but ssshh, details schmetails).   Just as my friendship with Kirstie seemed almost inevitable, so did a friendship with Lydia.  Even so, we were still in the early phase of nattering to one another online when I had some unexpected mail; a wedding invite.  Yes, despite having never met in the flesh, Lydia had invited me to her evening wedding reception.  Might sound weird to some people now, but at the time, I didn't bat an eyelid.  Of course I would go!  Consequently, the first ever photo of Lydia and me is actually of Lydia, her husband and a load of wedding guests, with me at the front, because I happen to be tiny.

Lydia in black & white, me in turquoise with truly awful hair.

After the wedding, we stayed in touch and not only chatted online, but sent Christmas cards and that sort of thing.  When she and her husband Luke moved back to Plymouth from Yorkshire, I remember thinking "ooh...  We could meet up."  And we did.  But bizarrely, it wasn't until the worst experience of my life that Lydia and I became as close as we are today.

My abusive ex lived in Plymouth (or at least he was from Plymouth and moved back there after uni).  Sometimes, I'd go to stay with him for a weekend and he'd go out for a few hours pursuing a hobby of his (not shagging other women, although... actually, for all I know, he could have been).  Seeing as I was on my own in a city I wasn't that familiar with, it made perfect sense to catch up with Lydia.  

It turned out that we were ideally matched.  We were both keen on singing.  We both had a tendency to become obsessed with bands or TV shows etc.  We were both bullied at school and had a few confidence issues as a result.  We were both, in the nicest way possible, weird.  Wonderfully weird.  And when you meet someone as weird as you know you are yourself, well frankly, you must never let them go.  Lydia and I learnt that we could be utterly stupid together - laughing until tears streamed down our faces - but we also learnt that we could open up and be entirely ourselves together, without fear of judgement.  

Over time, I started looking forward to seeing Lydia as much as I did my ex.  More so, once things got really bad between him and me.  And the worse things got between us, the more I found myself opening up to Lydia about it.  You see, the thing about Lyds is that she is - and I tell her this a lot - ridiculously wise.  She really has got a head full of wisdom beyond her years.  I wish I could syphon some of it off for myself, because I'm a notorious div.  I would tell Lydia what was going on - albeit a heavily manipulated version, seeing as I was myself being totally and utterly manipulated by my ex into thinking he couldn't help his behaviour and that everything was my fault - and she would listen and support me as best she could.  

When things got really bad, Lydia became the only person in the world who I felt able to confide in.  She was there when I was sobbing my heart out, wanting to die because I was so useless I just couldn't fix the problems I had clearly caused (again, manipulation).  She was there when I collapsed onto the pavement late one night, distraught at having been screamed at by my ex (he was furious with me for loving him, apparently).  She picked me up - quite literally - and walked me into her parents' house, where she and her husband were living at the time.  She put me to bed and she slept on the floor in my room, because she didn't want to leave me alone.  She was there for me when I finally walked away from that relationship.  She was able to use the word "abuse" before I could.  She wrote me a beautiful letter, in which she begged me not to blame myself for what happened - I still have it and I doubt I'll ever get rid of it.

It seems strange that something so awful could have given rise to something so wonderful, but I honestly think that that abusive relationship brought Lydia and I closer together.  It brought us closer than I had ever been to any other friend in my life.  As far as I'm concerned, in many ways, she saved my life.

And thank goodness she did, because if I wasn't around now, we'd never have had some of the stupid, funny, brilliant times we've had since.  Like going to The Big Reunion tour and pissing ourselves laughing at the idea that Sean from 5ive was dressed as a security guy.  Or holding hands on Rita at Alton Towers, screaming our heads off the whole way round.  Or going to see McBusted "purely for the Backstreet Boys" and ending up becoming two of the world's most obsessional McBusted fans (and proud).  Lydia is all kinds of awesome.  There have been times when we've been together and I've laughed so hard I've ached the next day.  There have been times when I've not known what to do about something and I instinctively know that Lyds will. I sometimes think she knows me better than I do.  I can't even find words for how amazing she is, so instead, have some silly photos:

Yes, "Kirstie" DOES refer to my other "Internet Friend."

So that's two amazing friends made through the Internet.  You know, just in case you're reading this and thinking "pah, no good can come from online friendships!"  And I wouldn't blame you if you were, because I could write a whole other blog about the awful people I've met online.  But eagle-eyed readers might remember that the first photo in this blog featured me and four other people, not just two.  

Well, technically I didn't meet the other two girls online.  But I did meet them thanks to the Internet.

When Kirstie got engaged, a few years into our friendship, she held a party.  At that party, I met Kirstie's younger sister, Lizzie and Kirstie's best friend, Kate.  Both lovely people, I thought straight away.  But I didn't see either of them again for a while.  In the meantime, I kept popping to Plymouth to see Lydia and meeting up with Kirstie on other occasions.  Eventually, Kirstie had an idea.  Why didn't we just meet up together?  If I remember rightly, I think Kirstie and Lydia had already met by this point, but one of them will correct me if I'm wrong, I'm sure...  Anyway, Kirstie then suggested she bring Lizzie and Kate along, too.  Eventually, we hit upon the idea of meeting in Plymouth to go ice skating and for lunch afterwards.  It was to be the first time all five of us went out together.  We got on like a house on fire.  That same feeling of inevitability washed over me from the word go: We were just meant to be friends.

Kate, Lizzie, Lydia and at the front, me.  The short one.

Since that day, there have been many, many similar meet-ups between the five of us.  And we don't just meet up as a gang, either.  Since I got to know them (thanks to Kirstie and therefore thanks to the Internet), I've forged amazing friendships with Kate and Lizzie too.

I see Kate almost as the mother hen of the group.  She's the one who has a sensible outlook.  Most of the time...  That said, she's also the one I ran laughing with down a Prague street, after accidentally watching a theatre show that we thought was about a well-known children's book, but involved rather more scenes of naked women touching each other than we had anticipated...

Kate and I can sit and natter away so much that an hour passes by in the blink of an eye.  We can laugh one minute and be serious the next.  She's more confident than she gives herself credit for and, like Lydia, often has a wise head on her shoulders.

Kate is also generous, friendly and has a wicked sense of humour.  She comes out with things that make you gasp, seeing as she's so innocent looking and demure most of the time!  She's a deep thinker like me, so we've had some pretty awesome heart to hearts over the last few years.  I treasure moments like that; it's good to be able to bare your soul with a friend, as well as share a few giggles.  Kate has a big heart and I love her for it.

And then there's Lizzie.  What can I say about Lizzie?!  My life would be SO much duller without her in it!

Lizzie is my Butlin's buddy.  She's a dreamer like me.  She's a feisty little so and so (it must run in the family!) and she's genuinely hilarious company.  She's strong and yet sensitive at the same time.  Lizzie is one of the few people in the world who can tell me off when I'm being stupid or oversensitive and not have me get mad at her for doing it (Lydia is one of the only others who can get away with that!).  Lizzie is sometimes so on my wavelength it's actually scary.  We're often thinking the same thing.  At the same time.  When we go away to Butlin's together, we're like a cross between a two-person army and a pair of over-excited kids, in as much as we're usually found in the Skyline, laughing hysterically at some in-joke that nobody else could possibly understand, but if anyone does anything to anger or upset the other, the laughter stops and Lizzie goes all black-belt.  As we told each other the last time we went away together:  We've got each other's backs if anything bad happens.  Always.  We also know that we'll do things for each other, regardless of whether we're that fussed about it.  For example, Lizzie spent November 23rd last year having a "Doctor Who Day" with me, in spite of the fact that she's not remotely bothered about the show.  I wanted to do it, so she joined in.  And the very first time we went to Butlin's was purely because Lizzie wanted to see Stephen Mulhern's magic show.  She wanted to see it, so I went with her.  Best decision I ever made, to be honest!

And seriously... Those in-jokes I mentioned?  I think we must have a hundred by now.  If the whole gang of us got together and I randomly went: "Nathan... Naaathaaaan... NAAAATHAAAAAN!" Not one of the other girls would have the slightest clue what I was blabbering on about.  Lizzie, on the other hand, would find it hilarious.  And rightly so, because it is.  To the two of us, at least.  Sometimes, it's things like that that make you realise what a special friendship you have - you almost create your own little world when you're together.  And Lizzie and I are definitely in a world of our own...

A lot of people are distrustful of those they meet online.  And it's not hard to understand why; there are a lot of bad people out there, pretending to be something they're not.  But if it wasn't for the Internet, I wouldn't have any of these amazing women in my life.  And I honestly don't want to think - not even for a second - what that would be like.  

So thank you Internet.  You may be full of leaked pictures of naked celebrities and trolls who think they're hilarious, but somewhere in the big old pile of yuck, there are gems to be found.  And I've found four.

Happy Internet Friend Day.