During the Top 40 culmination of the tabloid-fest that was The Battle of Britpop, I was hanging by the scruff of my Fred Perry T-shirt off the railings at the back of my family’s rented beach chalet, trying to get a radio signal to determine whether Blur or Oasis had come in at number one. I fear ‘beach chalet’ paints something of a misleading picture, actually – in truth it was a yellow, wasp-attracting wood-hut protecting the sleepy (nay, comatose) town of Sutton-on-Sea from the bitingly harsh (and, let’s be honest, probably radioactive) Lincolnshire tide. It was where my family spent the same two weeks every summer and, in 1995, the soundtrack to my fortnight was Blur’s Country House.
Fast forward 14 years to last Sunday night, somewhere half-way back in the crowd of Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage and, as a newly reformed Blur played the same song, thoughts of wasp stings, chips with scraps and shaking sand out of my Adidas Sambas immediately filled my head. Country House is by no means a great record, granted (and wasn’t that just the irony of The Battle of Britpop?), but in a couple of bars’ worth of oompah-ing brass, I was back in Sutton-on-Sea.
For a girl with a notoriously rubbish memory, it’s a comfort to know that certain songs can trigger the recollection of long-forgotten nuggets of time. It’s like being regressed to a former life (except in this case with cider and a camping chair replacing hypnosis and a couch). Ask me over a G&T what I did during the summer of 1993, for example, and I’d be hard pushed to even tell you how old I was. But stick Charles & Eddie’s Would I Lie To You on the jukebox (that’s not a request) and I’ll tell you many a teenage tale of lovestruck longing over my then-crush’s delicious thighs in his tight football shorts as I sat transfixed on the sidelines in a shameful crop-top and pink lipstick combo that I’d later come to regret.
Me and my Glasto comrades P, Tills and Si had been talking a lot over the weekend about the memories attached to music, thanks in no small part to our learning of the death of Michael Jackson. My reaction to that news took me as much by surprise as the story itself and, as a child of the 80s, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding myself oddly upset. I couldn’t get my head around my response – after all, it was years since I’d bought a Michael Jackson record. Perhaps it was just that I’d maxed out on my life’s quota of shock, and wasn’t prepared for any more of it. (Sodding shock, eh – if only I could remove the element of surprise, I reckon I’d be able to handle it.) But whichever it was, the passing of the loony, legendary Michael Jackson had me mourning in my camper van.
‘Sorry I’m being such a knob,’ I said to Tills after realising I hadn’t spoken for a good 30 minutes after his death had been confirmed. ‘I didn’t think I’d be so upset. I hadn’t realised I was even a Michael Jackson fan.’ Tills sipped her tea, considering a tactful response to my overreaction. ‘I’m not sure you are,’ she said. ‘I think you’re not mourning him so much as you are your memories of his songs.’ (Tills is so much smarter than I am that I often wonder why she’s such good mates with someone who considers The Hills a documentary.) Michael Jackson, to me, was the first single my parents bought to play on some bit of new-fangled kit they called a CD player. It was bragging to everyone at school that I was going to the Dangerous tour at Wembley Stadium, only to look like a prize twonk the following Monday when MJ had cancelled at the last minute. It was watching my Jacko-obsessed kid brother Jamie moonwalk badly across the living-room carpet, and him deciding at the grand old age of six that he, too, wanted to be a songwriter. (I held onto the lyrics of Jamie’s first song, If You Wanna Be A Singer, for the best man at his wedding – I am, like, the best. sister. ever.) So Tills’ comment was, of course, spot on. I was grieving for Billie Jean as much – if not more – as the man who recorded it.
Given the link between pop songs and old memories, then, it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve bought more albums in the last three months than I have in the entirety of the past year. You might consider that an odd decision, given that I’ve had so much time on my hands over the last 12 months that I could have easily reached recognising-songs-backwards familiarity with the combined back catalogues of everyone from Pink Floyd to Elvis Presley. But in truth, I didn’t really pay much attention to music during my Bullshit year. It left an undisputed gap, I’ll admit, but I put my indifference down to a simple lack of anything bordering on interest, energy or drive. I wonder now, though, whether it might have been an unconscious decision not to muddy the soundtrack of 2008/09 with the worst time of my life? The one album I did embrace during that time (The Seldom Seen Kid, obvs), I made a point of only playing in times when I felt more like a human being, careful not to taint it with crappy cancer memories. (Now there’s a question for you – if The Bullshit were a band, which would it be? I’ll start the betting with Toploader.) I kind of hope my music-shunning was done on purpose, actually, because it might just be the smartest thing I ever did.
Getting to Glastonbury (she says, as though it can be equated with reaching the summit of Everest or Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom) wasn’t just a big deal in terms of how far I’ve come in the space of my ‘gap year’, but in recognising that it is possible to fall right back into the comforting arms of the stuff you love (or love listening to), like jumping off a perilous tightrope onto a huge, enveloping cushion. And the simple fact that it all happens on a farm in Somerset only adds to its brilliance. (That’s if you gloss over the full-to-the-brim toilets, mind, and some people’s baffling reluctance to use loo roll after a shit – I felt like sticking a little sign in each exposed turd I laid eyes on: ‘Now wash your hands.’ Or, better still, ‘Now wipe your arse.’) Because, when you’re low on signal, when text messages are taking 48 hours to reach you and when you’re miles away from your laptop and your email and your Twitter account, you’re even further removed from the communication-crammed life you couldn’t do without back at home. And, strangely comforting as it is the rest of the time, you’re not continually having to return hospital questionnaires or order repeat prescriptions or book follow-up appointments or answer questions several times a day about how you’re feeling. And, by heck, it’s glorious.
With a jolt, Si looked up from his pint of cider – or piss, we couldn’t tell which – one afternoon at the festival. ‘Crikey,’ he said out of nowhere. ‘I’d forgotten you’d even been ill.’ And the beauty of it was – for the very first time in a year – I had too. Good old Glastonbury. You might come back bruised and muddy and covered in more germs than a Sunday-night portaloo, but any place that has the ability to make you forget about The Bullshit gets a McCartney-style thumbs-up from me. And so those four days on Worthy Farm marked more than just a brilliant Blur reunion, the return to fashion of Springsteen-like sweatbands and the realisation that Neil Young can make Down By The River last for three weeks. It also marked the moment when I took my finger off the pause button and finally pressed play on my lovely life once more.