Why does any one song happen to toss its velvet noose round our consciousness, pull us into wondrous musical asphyxiation before gently relinquishing its grip having seared itself onto our soul and kissed us like Morpheus on the warmest summer’s night?
If I knew the answer to that, I’d write one and of course, we are all smitten individually by different songs. Some people can write them, sing them, gift them to us time and again. Sadly this particular talent seems to have evaded me, however the following is my clumsy attempt to understand why the song I currently have on repeat in my head has done precisely that.
I’ve recently had the absolute privilege of being up close and personal with The Libertines as we swaggered, staggered, tumbled, stumbled and sometimes fumbled through the UK and Europe. We ended in Vienna, but the heart of the matter, as far as this story goes, began in Coventry, in 1940, sort of.
“You’re my Waterloo; I’ll be your Gypsy Lane.”
I happen to have the inside track on that particular lyric, its author informing me that the site of Napoleon’s last stand is coupled with a reference to a particular stretch of road in Bedworth, on the outskirts of Coventry. A lane, along which and way before ‘friendships’ had evolved into Facebook updates and WhatsApp messages, he would cycle to and fro to meet his best friend. Relationships of any kind required a bit more effort than a ‘like’ or emoji way back in the “sticky black tarmac” summers of his youth. (Yes I nicked that bit from Mr Weller!)
Gypsy Lane? When I was a kid, blessed with a fertile imagination and a Raleigh Chopper, a name like that evoked the possibility of being kidnapped, maybe by pirates, or gypsies or a platoon of German soldiers who’d been hiding out for 40 years awaiting orders to attack Weston-Super-Mare? I didn’t know any gypsies, nor, of course, am I suggesting they are prone to abducting adventurous, imaginative kids on bicycles as they peddled between each other’s homes. As far as I know, I don’t know any real Pirates either (apart from Mick H) and as for my German friends? They’ve got better things to do than hide in the woods near Weston for 3 decades. It’s the imagery though right? Yep I love a big fat dumb rocknroll riff or indeed the caress of well structure minor chords, but words and imagery, well that’s often the ether of any great song as far as I’m concerned and this is a great song.
“You’ll never fumigate the demons, no matter how much you smoke.”
I don’t think I need to explain how that particular sentence resonates with me, we’ve been there and done that enough already eh? Just in case you’re late to that particular sorry tale though, you can get it here.
So let’s stay with Coventry for now because that’s where the Libertines recent tour started and where the lyricist and his best mate went to school, it’s also where my mum’s life started and very close to where I was ‘educated’.
It’s fair to say, my mum is ‘getting on a bit’ and the two of us are currently spending time when I visit her, talking about her early life. As I’ve already mentioned, this song has lodged itself into my head of late and as I sat on the train, en-route to the midlands, I phoned my mum enquiring whether or not she recalled a Gypsy Lane in the Coventry of her childhood, she didn’t.
“Your grandmother had a saying Simon, ‘it’s a long lane that knows no turn”
She then giggled,
“I’m still not sure what she meant by that though”
We then began a conversation that brought tears to my eyes and trust me, I don’t cry often enough.
Mum was born in Paradise, Coventry in 1932, her family lived in rented accommodation at 594 Stoney Stanton Road, it’s nowhere near the Gypsy Lane mentioned in the song, but as a child she recalls cycling through Foeshill and out towards Coombe Abbey, where her father had been born, his own father having being the gamekeeper there. In keeping with the thread of this missive, it turns out, the band and I spent the first night of the tour there, adding another strand to the somewhat tenuous link that ties me to this song, it’s certainly a part of that attachment.
I’ve spent more time with my mum over the past couple of years than I’ve ever done previously, although I cannot claim to have spent nearly enough, but we talk often. She’s 83, has suffered with Multiple Sclerosis for over 40 years, been divorced twice and widowed once. She doesn’t complain about anything other than the pain she endures as a result of the MS, and it’s rare to hear her talk about that. She’s not had an easy life but her childhood memories of Coventry remain, for the most part intact, unlike the city itself which was bombed to the point it became almost unrecognisable after the Luftwaffe visited in November 1940. I had the privilege of hearing her describe her memories of that night to me recently.
As she recalls, in what had become known as the ‘phoney war’ air-raid sirens were the norm but nothing like what occurred on the night of 14th November, 1940 had ever been witnessed before.
“The warning went off, next door had an Anderson shelter in their garden so we (her mother and little brother) went down into it with another family. I was 8, I don’t recall if I was scared though because I was too young to understand what it all meant. I knew I was going to be ok if mummy was there though.”
“There was nine of us and a bucket in the shelter, it was pitch-black outside we had candles of course and blankets, but it was cold, the first bombs started to fall and suddenly we all realised, we were scared.”
The raid finished the following morning, two-thirds of the city’s building had been either, destroyed or damaged, nearly 600 people killed and a further 900 badly injured.
“When the all-clear sounded, Mummy told me to walk up the corner shop to get some milk for our breakfast, I remember going out of the back gate and seeing piles of rubble everywhere, a ,lot of houses had been hit. I think I walked over a dead person lying in the street, I was crying. I got to where the shop once stood, but there was just a pile of bricks left, with smoke and a ‘burning’ smell everywhere. Everything was gone but in the rubble I saw an undamaged bottle of HP sauce, because there was no milk and I was unsure what to do, I picked it out of the rubble and took it back to mummy.”
“I walked back to our house, past the dead person and went to give my mother the bottle of sauce, she took one look at it, then me, then in her sternest voice said,
“You take that back this instant, we are not looters”
So she did, without question or hesitation and has been trying to do the ‘right thing’ for the rest of her life, again without question or hesitation.
I suggested to her that perhaps, this is the metaphorical ‘long lane’ her mother talked about and it having ‘no turn’ has really been illustrated by her own sense of decency, despite the hardships of her own life.
“I’ve never thought about it like that Simon.”
Which kinda makes my point I think?
For me, it’s impossible to imagine Tabitha (just turned 8!) having to take that walk, or indeed sit for 12 hours in a damp, cold shelter while countless bombs fall from the sky. My mum recalls this story almost matter-of-factly as she spoke I just sat there speechless. She’s never broken the law, borrowed money or spoken ill of other people, at least as far as I know. She’s a proud woman despite or perhaps because of the hardships of her life. We will not see her kind again, of that I’m sure.
So the Gypsy Lane of Peters youth, ignited a conversation about my own mothers childhood, it’s remarkable how these things can happen, even Karl’s piano motif at the start of the song seems to fit the story here.
I realise that the song itself, has absolutely nothing to do with the memories shared with me by my Mum but the fact it inadvertently gave us that conversation is reason enough for it to earn its place in my emotional hard-drive, however, as I said earlier, there’s more to this story.
“You’re my Waterloo, I’ll be your Stanley Park.”
Stanley Park, for those of you (most?) who do not know, lies between Liverpool’s two famous (well one of them is) football stadia. Like the occupants of the blue half of the two grounds, it’s really a bit unremarkable save for the fact it separates the two clubs and is often the route for away fans heading to/from Anfield. As someone born in Somerset, I obviously support the mighty reds (There ya go blue-noses,1-1 on the piss-taking) in keeping with this story though, it’s the city of Coventry that is responsible for my attachment of over 35 years. Why? Simple! First match I was ever taken too, an historic 1-0 victory at the old Highfield Road ground for the sky-blues did not however convince me they were my tribe. The 7000 Scouser’s going mental in the away end despite the score-line, won me over that day, my dad had recently died, I was 11 years old and needed cheering up on a regular basis, so thank you Mr Dalglish etc., I’m a grateful glory-hunter to this day. I’ve walked across Stanley Park many times and like most parks, I’m sure this one has been the site of numerous battles of the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ variety as well as the occasional dust-up between rival fans over the years. It’s tribal, friendship and war, a red and blue Waterloo, until ‘yer ma calls you in for your tea.
Peters own ‘Ma, was born a few minutes’ walk away in Anfield, her mother, his ‘Nanny Liverpool’ lived there her entire life, somewhere along the line,there’s surely a link to his song Breck Road Lover?
“Cos I’ll go, No I’ll go. I’ll go
I know I’ll go to Liverpool
Uh, oh, oh
Yes I know I’ll be loved there
She’s no scrubber
She’s my Breck Road Lover
And we wash in dirty waters
And walk the streets where she gets her name”
Mothers, Coventry, childhood journeys, demons, the darkness of Hancock the despair of Judy Garland, survivors (of more than one life transient life) and the promise of happiness followed by a lyrical question mark. All of this laid out for me to discover as I’ve already mentioned, in the ether of the song. It was my ears, not my eyes that were captured at first, and then I watched the video, only to discover its location was one of mine and Tabitha’s favourite places in London. The black and white footage shot along the riverbed at low tide in Wapping, is precisely the location, my daughter and I go to pretend to be pirates! We scuttle down Wapping Old Steps and onto the sand and debris often, walking east, towards the Prospect of Whitby pub, where, ironically enough, there is a mock-up gallows to commemorate those Smugglers, Pirates and thieves unfortunate enough to have been hung there a few centuries ago
Three (good?) reasons to throw the rope indeed!
I love this song, thanks for the memories.
My one-man show, based on the memoir Too High, Too Far, Too Soon, return to the London Stage on 27th/28th April, for tickets and more information click here
Tickets details for the shows at The Water Rats