Most of us have, at times of weakness or self-pity, set off in pursuit of what we think of as “home”. The idea that a place, a person or an event from the past can be reanimated by association is a mawkish con that no serious person should entertain. And yet when, as sometimes happens, the zeitgeist is with you, the temptation to press on can be irresistible. You dive joyfully into a warren of self-absorption from which it takes weeks to emerge.
I have done this from time to time, but never more single-mindedly than back in 1994, when a sense of geographical and cultural estrangement led me to form an intense attachment to the pop musicians Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree, otherwise known as Blur.
The circumstances were as follows: I had graduated from university and left England in order to join the staff of an Indian weekly news magazine. I was renting a small flat in Gulmohar Park, a middle-class “colony” in prim, proper, pre-liberalisation south Delhi. At around the same hour of the morning that the ex-army officers who had retired there emerged from their houses to take a brisk constitutional around the squares of blanched grass, I would be settling into the auto-rickshaw that would take me to my office in Connaught Place, a few miles away in the centre of town.
I had fondly imagined that this office would bear witness to my meteoric professional rise, but that wasn’t how things turned out. After only a few days it became clear to me that I had been hired on a whim and that no one had given much thought as to how I might usefully spend my time. I would sit around reading the Hindustan Times, superfluous and deskless. At lunch I would go to the Press Club with a colleague and have chicken curry and two large Kingfishers before coming back to the office to sit around some more, reeling and burping and peering over the cubicle partitions.
Towards the end of the week-long print cycle, copy would dribble in from the provincial offices, and some of it was handed over to me for “reworking”. I was pleased to be active, and decided to use the opportunity to make a strong impression. I had Orwell’s Why I Write by my bed in Gulmohar, and I wasn’t going to stand for imprecision, showing off or bad grammar. It was amazing how much of this I detected with a couple of beers inside me – as well as sentences that, while innocent of any specific crime, were ugly and could be improved. In no time I had upset correspondents from the Maldives to Nepal.
One day a colleague asked where in England I was from in a tone that might have contained a note of hostility but, looking back, probably did not. “London,” I replied. “London proper?” “Maida Vale. How proper do you want?” She looked puzzled and walked away.
That exchange summed up the defensive manoeuvres I was now executing at a rate of several a day in New Delhi, at grave cost to my social standing and peace of mind. Another rankle concerned the Hindi language, which I had spent four years learning at university, only to discover that no one in India was prepared to speak it to me. My attempts to engage office colleagues in Hindi were met with a smile before the conversation went on in English.
It wasn’t long before I felt miserable, unappreciated and misunderstood. But then, at the nadir – the inflexion point at which all major religious traditions insist is the correct time for miracles – providence intervened. One evening, walking under the arches of Connaught Place towards the rickshaw that would take me home, I passed a hole-in-the-wall shop selling music cassettes. The shelves were stacked with Bollywood film scores and classical ragas, santoor and sitar masters and a smattering of Tamil and Malayalam pop. The only foreign artists represented were Chris de Burgh and Jethro Tull. There was a lot of affection for Chris de Burgh and Jethro Tull in India at the time, a phenomenon I will not try to explain.
One tape – obviously pirated – caught my eye. The cover image had been reproduced using a primitive colour photocopier, and appeared to show two greyhounds racing around a track. This unexpected sight brought out strong, almost overpowering emotions in me. It could only be Walthamstow or Wimbledon. There were no words on the cover, so I opened the box and withdrew the cassette. Someone had written on it, in big capital letters, “BLUR”, and after it, in brackets, “(Parklife)”.
You can probably guess the rest. Here I was, sick for London and resentful of the dull, futile direction in which things seemed to be heading. Delivered into my hands was an album that managed to elevate this sense of anticlimax into a thing of beauty, wit and style.
The manner in which I had stumbled on Parklife suggested a fated affinity, and while this notion might seem grandiose coming from a 22-year-old with no obvious accomplishments, the truth is that back in 1994 serendipity was more important to our cultural makeup than it is now. Experiences with art were more spontaneous, less interfered-with, less prey to “curators” manipulating creativity into globally marketable products. It was possible to be both inquisitive and unaware of a lot of what was going on.
If anything, this sense of separateness was stronger in India than in many places. India was a heavily regulated place. Culture then was relatively undiluted. The Indian press praised Indian heroes and local radio stations played Indian songs. MTV was virtually absent. There was no internet to speak of. I couldn’t Google “Blur” and learn (for example) that Damon’s granddad had been a conscientious objector or that the first name of bassist Alex James was in fact Steven. I had to work things out for myself.
I had no idea that millions of other people were doing the same. As far as I was concerned Parklife was mine alone – forwarding, rewinding, raging against the power cuts, straining for the words through cataclysmic monsoon rains. One song after another took up residence in my mind, stayed as long as it was necessary for me to know every note, and moved on.
I worked methodically through the album’s various characters and situations. Here was Tracy Jacks, curiously-named antihero of the first, thumping track (not officially the first – in the act of piracy the playing order had been corrupted), a middle-aged, middle-class rebel stripping naked on the beach and bulldozing his house because being normal was overrated. Then there was the cockney geezer in the title track who regarded jogging as a symptom of psychological disorder (the retired officers in Gulmohar never broke into a run, which to my mind bespoke a superior kind of park life). “Bank Holiday” was a manic, guitar-heavy romp that led me to carouse around the flat as Damon’s voice rose to a porcine squeal: “Girls and boys are on the game / all the high streets look the same”.
Not having sleeve notes or access to NME, the odd misunderstanding was inevitable. How was I to know that the track I understood to be “Another Century” (as in, anuvva century) was in fact “End of a Century”? So, while I perhaps loved that song most of all, along with those other painfully beautiful ballads “Badhead”, “To the End” and “This Is a Low” (they rotated in and out of favour), it’s possible I didn’t really get the point.
There was also a mix-up over Tracy Jacks, who apparently worked at a place called St Alsover’s, which I was prepared to believe was a decaying market town somewhere in the home counties named after an obscure religious figure, but which turned out (when I did eventually Google it) to be “civil service”.
I had no doubts over Parklife’s cultural patriotism. Miles of trench were being dug, mined with mordancy and barbed with understatement, the better to lacerate ingratiating, all-consuming America. Years later I read that Albarn had said something to the effect that it was possible to be proud of your Englishness without wanting to bring back the Raj. This was exactly how I was feeling in Gulmohar.
Every day I took my rickshaw through Edward Lutyens’s New Delhi, an imperial capital built as a gated community. I phut-phutted along bumpty asphalt and stared at cliffs of sandstone built for Gandhi to look puny against. But Parklife brought us safely back from empire and defended the ramparts of a smaller, concentrated England. Brent Cross; the white cliffs of Dover; Land’s End (as in, the Queen went round the bend and jumped off it). The references were affable and arch, while the music encompassed a whole culture: the choppy, off-beat guitar chords of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman”, the brass of Dexys Midnight Runners and the menace of the Jam. It was warm and dirty, like sitting in a dressing gown with the curtains drawn.
I wasn’t troubled by questions of authenticity. Identity is a novel in any case, not an encyclopedia. Parklife told me I could be one of the characters. Not that I spoke like Damon (Damon didn’t speak like Damon); not that I’d ever got lost on the Westway or drunk lots of lager. It was precisely because I hadn’t that I loved Parklife and the London it represented.
Sometime in the course of my obsession I received a visit from a professor from my university who had taught me about Buddhism and Jainism. He came to Gulmohar Park with his Indian wife. I put on Blur. They liked “Girls & Boys”, and he told me you heard it everywhere in England, where Blur were being called the new Beatles. But he frowned at the distorted guitars. The allusions eluded him, and he couldn’t understand how I was listening to these little tunes when the last time we had met we had spoken of John Coltrane.
This June, after 21 summers, I went to watch Blur in Hyde Park. I had seen them live in 1995, rushing back from Delhi to attend the Mile End gig that confirmed their position at the pinnacle of British popular culture. I had been to Mile End with a school friend, who now happened to be going to the Hyde Park gig, too, and we arranged to meet near the stage. We had hardly seen each other for the last two decades, in large part because I had lived abroad. We looked at each other and laughed at the rain and the passing years.
After The Great Escape, the album that followed Parklife, Blur had stopped singing hymns to London. The sands were shifting. America was triumphant now that TV had been deregulated and everyone had the internet; to rail against it was to condemn yourself to quaintness and irrelevance. London had changed in other ways, too.
While on my various overseas postings I had not fully understood how much. The city now seemed all about “getting on”. The coexistence of people and cultures must surely tend towards some common soul, some shared objective other than buying things at attractive rates of interest, if it is to stand for more than mutual indifference under the same roof. The Mile End gig had felt – at least to me – like the London gig, defining the whole city and much of the decade. At Hyde Park this summer, Blur no longer spoke for the town. Nothing would be defined, though a lot would be relived.
Shortly after 8pm the band came on stage. They were still alive and they could still play. Dave was bulky, Damon piratical, Graham a rooted maypole around which all else flowed. There was a new album to show off, containing a suggestive mixture of the old Blur and the new. The gig heated up. Phil Daniels came on stage to be the cockney geezer in “Parklife”. We pogoed to “Girls & Boys”; I looked over my shoulder as the sky turned pink, and the tears welled as we came together to murder “This Is a Low” – tears for the old me and, for good or bad, the old home.