Wednesday, 20 March 2013



Hepatitis Court


And so began eighteen months of grinding unhappiness and nothingness, and that’s without the help of crack.  It was September 1999, and I had a notion that I would write a collection of breathtaking songs before Christmas, send them out to a record label or two, be signed, and get famous, or at least make a living making music.  I did write some songs, partly spurred on by new bits of equipment that gave me extra creative momentum.  There I’d sit, cross-legged on the floor, playing my keyboard, also on the floor, with a microphone jutting out from the edge of my bed.  The weeks passed, and I wrote quite a few new songs, all whilst stoned, and was quite pleased with a few of them.  I even got round to sending a few out to record labels, but gave up pretty quickly once it was clear a contract was not going to be dropping on my doormat before Christmas.


I spent Christmas with my parents, and this was probably 'ok'.  But, because I couldn't stand being there for too long, I contrived to leave as soon after Boxing Day as the train timetable would allow, telling my parents a friend had invited me to bring in the new millennium with them.  If they had, I didn’t go, but at least it meant my parents wouldn’t be concerned I had nothing to do on such an allegedly momentous day.


Then, on the night of the 31st, as the dread hour loomed, I thought the best thing to do would be to assume a sub-quilt position, which I did at about ten o’clock.  I was hoping to be sleeping deeply by midnight, and to wake up on a fresh, clear, New Year's Day, transfigured.  But a steady intensification of fireworks exploding in a festive sky put pay to that.  I couldn’t help recoiling in cultural disgust at the hype attached to this night of enforced jollity.  As I lay there, switching from radio-station to radio-station, it was difficult to avoid tracks like the Prince song, 1999, and Robbie Williams' Millennium.  Then, as I gawped at the ceiling in a state of living rigger mortis, with a flurry of aerial explosions, whoops and cheers from passing partiers, the year 2000 was born – another blank canvas to scrawl on.  No doubt I was one of many to troop off to their GP in early January asking for antidepressants.


So there I sat in the surgery, for the third time in my life, asking my doctor for antidepressants.  He said he’d try me on a new one that psychiatrists were using.  ‘Well, if psychiatrists use it, it must be good,’ I vaguely thought, and went home happily clutching my prescription.


I took my first capsule at lunchtime.  By about four, I can remember feeling slightly edgy, then, by about eight, having to tell myself, ‘Don’t worry, don’t panic, you’ll be ok,’ although I wasn’t sure why I was having to do this.  Come midnight, I thought I’d go to bed.  I think I listened to the radio, as usual, then slowly drifted off to sleep, except, as I did so, I can remember feeling a bit odd.  Just as I was about to fall asleep, I sat up in a state of panic.  My heart was racing, and I could barely catch my breath.  All I could think of to do was try and be sick.  I tried to get to the loo, but my knees buckled in the hallway.  I thought I was going to die.  My vision was glassy, and my limbs felt feeble, like a rained-on rag-doll.  I decided it might be a good time to pray.  So I did one of those prayers when you say, ‘Dear God, please, keep me alive just this once, and we’ll settle up later.’  I then struggled into the bathroom, knelt with my head in the loo and tried to make myself sick.  I kept retching, but nothing would come.  So I crawled back into the living-room and phoned an ambulance.  By now my heart was galloping and I could barely catch my breath.  I explained what was happening as best I could and awaited the arrival of my saviours.


Minutes later, my buzzer went, and I made my way outside, hoping the house-manager wasn’t peering out of her window, which overlooked the entrance to the building.  The friendly paramedics took me into the ambulance, checked my pulse, noted it was speeding, but also that it was beginning to slow.  It didn’t feel like that to me, but I trusted their judgment.  Then I was given some oxygen to help me get my breath back.  They thought I was having quite a bad panic-attack, as opposed to actually dying, but they said they'd take me to the hospital if I really wanted.  I really wanted.  So off we went to A&E.


A little later, I was being asked to take a seat in the dazzlingly depressing waiting area.  There were a few other customers in place.  One sitting in crumpled silence, another twitching about in the corner, occasionally grunting, and a third that just plain stank.  I found myself a few seats along from him, but couldn't bring myself to move in case I hurt his feelings.  I was asked through to see the nurse.  She asked me what was up, and I told her about my run-in with an antidepressant.  In the name of honesty, I let her know that I'd also smoked a couple of joints earlier in the day.  I think this information prompted the nurse to tick a box marked 'stoned, put to back of queue'.  I spent the next three hours back in the waiting room, being ignored, just me and my fragrant friend, who I think was just there to get out of the cold.  So, come about four, after several enquiries as to the likelihood of getting seen, all to no avail, I asked the woman at the desk to order me a taxi, and half an hour later I was being driven home by a pleasant man who seemed much more interested in my welfare than anyone in the hospital had.  I felt a little better by now, and when I got home I went to bed and drifted into an unquiet sleep.


I woke up at lunchtime, still feeling edgy.  There was no way I was going to take another of those satanic capsules, so I went back to the doctor and told him what had happened.  He listened sympathetically, and wrote me out a prescription for something different.  I decided not to start them for a while.  A few days later, I experienced a panic attack that came close to the intensity of the first.  I imagine this was because the original medicine was still festering in my system.  Luckily, this one passed.  By now, I’d been constipated for several days, and was for another several.  ‘Oh, you poor man,’ said the chemist, with what sounded like sympathy born of experience, and gave me some little caplets.  Reader, they worked.  The moral of this parable?  Beware drugs, licensed or otherwise.


I began the new antidepressants, but didn’t notice much improvement.  My life still resembled how things had been on the coast, except now I had the churning of traffic to accompany my thoughts…rise at noon, roll a joint, have a cup of tea, put the telly on, think about what creative venture I'd start that day, but not do it, drift through the afternoon, then, at six o'clock, watch the Simpsons, stoned as a monk.  The evening would inevitably involve raiding the fridge, getting progressively stoned, and maybe getting round to writing some music, before going to bed, stoned.


Most of the next year was spent without anyone there.  Empty day followed empty day, stoned week followed stoned week, drunk month followed drunk month.  I’d see the odd friend from time to time, but other than that it was solitary confinement, in which I was both prisoner and warder.  Outside, the seasons did their thing.


I, concealed behind greying net-curtains, fixated on porn, acquired from various outlets in the King's Cross area.  Not having access to crack, I resorted to my original addiction, sex.  This I'd accompany with whatever drugs I had to hand.  Red wine, dope, poppers, even over-the-counter painkillers, just to numb the soul.  One night, I even found myself taking Nytol recreationally.  Once, having just bought porn from a seedy bloke in a dusty King’s Cross alcove, I bought what I thought was a gram of coke from a bloke outside.  Naturally, when I got home, it wasn't coke, but a scrunched-up Iceland receipt wrapped in cling-film.  So many nights I'd sit there in my room, alone, scrutinising some new pornographic opus on my scrawny portable.  Poppers are a pretty weird drug.  I'm surprised I didn't kill myself on them, really.  There I'd sit, inhaling the chemical fumes from the little bottle with a name like 'Crazy Horse' or 'Jungle Jive', as some erotic vignette would come to its denouement.  Poppers make the heart pound and push the blood to the extremities of the body, so you can see why people use them sexually.  Unlike crack, they make it happen, as opposed to stop it happening, but it's a pretty desperate game, whichever way you look at it.  Then, evening over, emission accomplished, a bottle of red wine emptied, four or five joint-butts in the ashtray, and lid back on the poppers, I'd eject the video, shove it in a drawer where the cleaner wasn't likely to look, have another joint and watch Newsnight.  And so to bed.


Spring sprung like a taunt, and little crocus-heads poked from friable, frost-clad soil, which I'd heartlessly trample, as I made my way to see a prostitute, picked out from the personal pages of the Hammersmith Gazette.  The tedium of many an afternoon was broken up by such a venture.  Rise at lunchtime, roll that joint, pop to the post-office for milk and local paper, then dash home to see what ‘personal services’ were on offer that week.  There they'd be, tucked away between 'paving' and 'pet supplies'.  The anatomy of addiction seems to be the same whatever the drug, or activity.  First, that midbrain spark, igniting the notion that it's time for action, time to throw forethought aside and set off on a pilgrimage to that well of appetite whose water is always too deep to reach.


I'd got away with hibernating during winter and spring, but now that it was time to crawl out of my straw-filled box, I found I couldn't.  The more I stayed in my flat, the more it felt like a box, and the more I felt like a prisoner within it.  But the prospect of doing anything new, like starting a course, getting a job, performing comedy, forming that band, or finding a relationship, seemed out of reach.  Aspirations, never turning into anything real, end up turning on you, wagging their fingers and chiding you.  'Why haven't you honoured us, made us real?'  They're like children, conceived, but held in the womb so long they actually grow up in there.  After a while, you're so pregnant, you can barely move.


I went back to my GP and asked if I could see a counsellor.  He put me in touch with a local counselling centre, and a week or two later I was asked in for an assessment.  A few weeks later, I was being counselled.  It began to help, and I actually managed to decide to return to performing comedy, albeit back at the bottom of the comedy ladder.


I rang up the place in Islington that I’d performed at a year or two before, and booked myself in for a spot on their open-mic night.  I felt it was important for me to go on my own, perform on my own, and basically see the venture as a quasi-professional thing.  If I felt that comedy was something I could do professionally, given the right level of self-belief, I should get used to turning up places alone, delivering the goods, then going home, without always seeing it as some kind of dare to which friends should be invited.  Butchers sell meat.  They get up in the morning, pop to the abattoir, take a few carcasses back to the shop, don an apron, hang a few choice cadavers in the window, and the working day's begun.  They don't get their mates round to sprinkle the floor with sawdust, squirt bone-meal in sausage-casings, or stick rosettes in shoulders of beef.  I needed to take a leaf out of the manual of good butchery.  I needed to be self-contained, self-confident, and begin to develop a professional self.


I worked on some new material, until, script internalised, I was in the bath on the day of the performance, a joss-stick in the basin, wafting sandalwood about, and the radio on quietly in the kitchen.  There I was, happily lolling away in tepid glee, at once both apprehensive and strangely under-whelmed by the prospect of performing, when the woman on the radio said, 'We've just received a report that a plane has crashed into one of the twin towers in New York,' to which I thought, 'Oh shit.'  I can remember hoping some disaffected redneck was to blame, like that Timothy McVee, who blew up that building in Oklahoma.  The idea of it being an angry Arab, or similar George Bush bogeyman, was a frightening prospect, because that would lead, as it did, to him and his friends unleashing their unique brand of muscular Christianity on various peoples and places.


A few minutes later, another plane’s ploughing into the second tower.  Then the first tower's collapsing.  Then the second.  So, wrapped in a towel, I go into the living-room and put the telly on.  It certainly made for compelling viewing, like Thunderbirds, but real.  I can remember thinking, 'Blimey, this is Biblical,' or something profound like that.  Then I thought, 'I wonder if they'll cancel the comedy.’  A little later, I rang through to find out.  'Yes, tonight is comedy,’ said the girl who answered, although I’m not sure she’d heard the news.


Later on, I arrive at the venue, a good while after my first handful of visits.  As I walked in, there was Percy, the compere, eyes circled with a worldweariness born of overexposure to bad comedy.  He recognised me and asked how I was.  I felt ashamed for not having moved up the comedy ladder since our previous encounters, and gave him some blather about having been working out of London, then turned the questions on him.  I was the first to arrive, as was my practice, which meant that I could choose where I'd come in the running order.  As ever, I picked first up in the second half, then went and propped myself up on a stool by the bar and waited for the revels to begin.  After about half an hour, the place began to fill up a bit, peaking at about twenty people, half of whom were acts.


Once the entertainment got underway, it was clear that the twin towers were fair game for the amateurish stylings of most of the acts.  But no one had anything incisive or clever to say, and the whole place had the ambience of a disused abattoir.  But when Paddy tried to resuscitate the audience after the interval, I went up and did my bit, making no reference to the main event of the day.  But avoiding the subject felt more contrived than mentioning it, and I ended up feeling like a kind of self-appointed arbiter of comedy morals.  And however pleased I'd been with my new material that morning, the backdrop of three thousand people lying dead under rubble seemed to put a dampener on things.  So, job done, I returned to my pint of unpalatable cider, as the rest of the evening withered away into nothingness.  I had a bit of nice interaction with the Polish girl who worked behind the bar, chatted to one or two of the other acts, then went home.  I had at least done what I said I would do.


Things were threatening to get marginally better.  I probably wouldn’t have got back to comedy without the encouragement of my counsellor.  I'd also bought a new little drum'n'bass box, into which I could program rhythm-tracks and bass-lines for new songs, of which I wrote quite a number at this time.  I also discovered that I could play the guitar a bit, having for years thought, because I wasn't a virtuoso, that I should just leave it languishing in the corner, daily reminding me that I was an underachieving misfit.  It's amazing what you can get away with when you've got a bit of imagination and a guitar-effects box.


I began turning up at other comedy venues, and sitting at the back like a Time Out critic or a talent-scout.  I wanted to check out the acts, but was mainly there to ask the compere if I could do a quick five minutes some time.  One such place was in the basement-bar of a local hotel.  I sat there in the shadows and saw a few acts come and go, and then, during the interval, collared the compere and cajoled him into giving me a slot the following week.  Perhaps he admired my get-up-and-go attitude, I don't know, but he seemed fairly happy to give me a chance, which did my confidence no harm at all.


Come the night, I met up with a friend of a friend, who lived just round the corner from the hotel.  I  wasn't at all nervous before going on, which I think meant that I was in a strangely de-energised state when I got up on the stage.  I was feeling pretty out of sorts, with quite a lot of eye-pain going on, which was something of a distraction, only adding to my feelings of self-consciousness.  Once I did get up there, it was obvious to the audience that I was not comfortable, and so neither were they.  I opened badly, and couldn't redeem things.  I got increasingly panicky, and started talking too fast.  This meant that the audience had no spaces in which to laugh.  And so, with no laughter, I panicked even more.  Then I stopped even looking at the audience, choosing instead to start gazing off to the left and right.  Then, when I realised I'd blown it, I just wrapped up and got off.


Then I had to go back and sit with my friend, which gave me no pleasure at all.  Within moments, one of the other acts came over and said words to the effect of, 'Don't worry mate, you've got some good material there, but you didn't get it across properly.'  I felt that was fair, and appreciated his candour and kindness.  But I still felt humiliated.  Then the compere came over, saying that he liked one particular line very much.  It was like waking up in the gutter with paramedics above me.  You're only as funny as your last gig, or gag.  I couldn't sit there assuring everyone that I had been funny the previous week.  So I just put it behind me.  It didn't really haunt me that badly, because everyone dies at least once in their life.  Jack Dee said that one rule of comedy is 'never embarrass the audience'.  Embarrassment spread through the bar that night like Legionnaire's Disease through air-conditioning, and I was patient zero.  Come to end of the evening, I said goodbye to my friend, still wanting to assure her that I was capable of being funny, and we went our separate ways.


I was about ten minutes from home, when some bloke accosted me from the entrance to a block of flats.  'Are you looking for anything, bruvva?' he asked.  I sensed illicitness, and my shadow-self kicked in.  'What have you got?' I asked, not wishing to jump to any conclusions.  He didn't beat around the bush.  'White,' he replied.  Well, having only been abstinent by default, I was in there like a shot.  He must have thought he'd hit jackpot.  Maybe he could spot a user, even if they'd not actually used for two years.  He gestured I should follow him, which I did like a dog on the promise of a bone.  As he led me round the back of the block, it struck me that I might have misjudged things a bit.  'I'm not looking for any trouble,' I said.  He sensed my nervousness and sought to reassure me.  'It's ok mate, my girl's upstairs.'  That was good enough for me.  We reached the bottom of the steps and began to climb, firm friends by the time we reached our first stairwell.  In better light, I got a better view of him.  Gaunt as a broom, with spiv-like moustache, tired, malnourished-looking skin, mean, mauve lips, and smashed-up teeth…all topped off with a baseball-cap at a controversial angle.


Next, we're sitting on the stairs a couple of storeys up, smoking crack with 'his girl'.  I think he was a bit of an amateur pimp.  There was something reptilian about him, nasty and sinuous like a tentacle.  She was quiet, although her eyes had a look of slow exasperation about them, and she acquiesced skilfully to whatever he said.  He nudged me as she was on the pipe, saying something vague about me having her for the night.  'She's mine, bruv, she knows what's good for her, do you know what I mean?'  I pictured him beating her in a basement, cajoling her into doing his mate a favour in the bathroom.  It would be great to say that I found his offer repugnant and rose above the moral swamp in which he clearly writhed.  But to me, love's guttersnipe, it all seemed like an excellent adventure…with a bit of crack in my system, doubly so.  Pre-crack, my demeanour around 'ladies of a certain profession' had always been passive and polite.  Post-crack, the thoughts and fantasies I found myself entertaining were, to be honest, not nice.  Crack's a pretty satanic catalyst.  It digs into your deepest insecurities and turns them inside-out.  Suddenly the shy are strident, the inept, consummate, celibate, sexual.  Fleetingly, the victim becomes the vanquisher, the virgin, the vampire.


I vaguely accepted his seedy proposition, at which point he said something to the girl, like, 'Yeah, you and him?'  She blew out the smoke, and vaguely nodded.  Well you would.  Until you know who's going to be funding the next few hours, it’s wise to keep your options open.  Only when you know where the power lies can you decide where any favours should be directed.


It was decided we really should be making a move.  After all, there's only so long you can sit in a stairwell before you start feeling self-conscious.  We took the lift back to the ground, made our way to the nearest cab-office, via the cashpoint, and before long we were climbing another stone staircase in another anonymous-looking tower-block, down by the river in Hammersmith.


I don't know who his friends were, but their flat was the usual barren shell, the only vestige of orthodoxy being a portable telly on a chair in the corner, probably cos it was too heavy to drag to Cash Converters.  I slumped down into what I realised on closer inspection was a car-seat, amid crumpled TV guides and shards of porn.  The coffee-table before me was a mess of ashtrays, foil, and ripped-up cans.  But it’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with, innit?


We stayed there for a couple of hours, until it was time to go out and get some more.  We got a cab back to the cash-point, got some money out, drove around the corner and parked up near a bus-stop.  Tentacles asked me for the money, which I gave him.  Then he asked me to get out of the cab, saying that the guy he was going to score from was a bit paranoid, and didn't like him turning up with strangers.  Obviously, this was so much bullshit, and so full of holes to be even half-convincing, but there was me, chump of the moment, getting out of the cab and waiting on the pavement.  'You will be back, yeah?' I almost pleaded.  'Five minutes, bruv,' he assured me, 'I'm just going round the corner, that's all.’  He directed the cabbie round the corner, and they drove off.  Needless to say, that was the last I saw of them.


Problem was, though, I didn't really know where I was.  All I knew was that I was at a bus-stop, in the rain, at four in the morning, which is where crack always leaves you, if not literally, metaphorically.  But luckily, there was an all-night shop nearby, so I went inside and asked the guy where the hell I was.  Turned out I was on the salubrious Shepherd's Bush stretch of the Uxbridge Road.  I was closer to home than I thought, so I got my bearings outside and made my way home…a twenty minute plod through nameless, rainy streets.


Back in the flat, the only light being thrown on the subject was dawn's infringement.  'What the hell was that about?' I wondered, languishing in the arms of my long-lost friend, that nagging outstayer of welcomes, the comedown.  Were the fates conspiring against me?  Well that would have been the excuse, but, in reality, only I could carry the can for stopping off when assailed by a stranger at midnight.  Nothing had changed.  The aftermath was still the same tense, angst-ridden nightmare I'd come to know.  But I consoled myself with the fact that his dumping me at the bus-stop had at least brought things to an early close, stopped them getting really out of hand.  But I was still pining for a pipe to lift me, however briefly, out of this pit of spitting vipers.  I kept reminding myself that I'd get through it, and eventually, after much clenching and gnashing of teeth, I managed to slip into a shallow sleep.


I woke at noon, but it was as if I'd never been asleep.  Yes, the hangover was just the same.  I searched my head for a grain of cheer, but found none.  All dopamine, and other agents of happiness, had vanished.


My head felt like a cold and burnt-out fireplace, with no obvious sign of getting a fresh blaze going.  Then the plaintive strains of an antique acquaintance piped up from the blackness of the chimneystack.  'Please, no more, no more,' came a sorrowful, soot-muffled cry.  Momentarily, a wave of pity passed through me.  Obviously, some waif was wedged up there.  'Don't forget me, sir, please, don't forget me.'  But I had other things on my mind.  Top-hatted and cloaked, I was out the door like Jack the Ripper on arsenic.  The waif would have to wait.  He'd come unstuck eventually, when he’d got skinny enough to come loose and drop down into the hearth.


So there I was, on the hunt again.  I made my way down Goldhawk Road, back to the foot of the block where the reptile had caught me on his prickly tongue.  But there was a madness in my method.  I half-thought he might be back there, ensnaring passers-by with whispers of white nights of oblivion, or, if he wasn't, maybe someone new would be hanging around.  My goal was to hook up with someone, anyone that could facilitate a repeat of last night – but there was no sign of him or the girl.  I walked up a few floors, just in case it was a regular haunt.  But there was no one around.


The block felt designed to cultivate suicidal thoughts, a way of sifting out the socially weak without anyone really noticing.  Built with only cost in mind, this was a block that chose you, not the other way round.  Named after someone laudable on the national curriculum, it was known by those in the know as Hepatitis Court.  There was usually a puddle in the lift.  All the doors were fire-doors, and thick as a fist.  This is where the destroyed middle-classes mingle with the feral.  If you can't hack it in your own clan, hack your way into another, move down a rung or two, and hang out with a crowd who don't care what job you do, or did, how big your house is, or was.  There's no pressure to impress here.  See it as a kind of high-rise haven, concrete retreat.


But there was nothing there for this hapless afternoon-hunter, no new friendships to forge, nor old ones to fake.  What could he do now?  All the old feelings were back.  One go at the old game and I wanted to gamble everything.  Dice felt like the cure for debt.  I returned to my flat, crestfallen, disconsolate.


From the barely settled ashes of abstinence, so chancily put down, an ugly phoenix was threatening to lumber.  Too long he’d languished in grey.  Now his hunger for hunger was heightened.  He rose, yawned, and stretched, like a darkside Yaffle, shook dust from stiffened wings, one glass eye gleaming in profile, like Jack o'Diamonds, piercing, inscrutable, voracious.
As the days passed, and my spirits slowly rallied, I was on my way to visit a friend over in my old stomping-ground of Westbourne Park...

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