This month we’re turning the blog into the ‘4th Estate Festival’, celebrating all our music-themed books and our musically-inclined authors. To kick us off, here’s Carl Barât of The Libertines on how he met a certain Mr. Peter Doherty, from his autobiography ‘Threepenny Memoir’. Best enjoyed with the reunited band’s new single ‘Gunga Din’ spinning in the background.
“Before The Libertines, before the madness and the money, before the room started filling up with people we didn’t know, Peter and I would romanticize about Albion. I don’t even know when we first started saying it. It was something that, many years ago, Peter and I, if we were trying to motivate the other to do something, we’d say: ‘Do it for the Albion’, and it would work. It would spur us into action even if it did sound as if we were talking about West Brom. Most people wouldn’t even have bothered to dress it up: they’d just have told you they had goals, but we imagined ourselves on a voyage sailing through choppy waters, on a ship called the Albion looking for Arcadia. That might sound vaguely nonsensical or highfalutin to other people, but as far as I’m concerned that’s the voyage I’m on. If you are going to set sail, then you have to give your vessel a name, and my good ship’s called the Albion. For the sake of home and hope and glory, let’s sail to Arcadia, an unfettered place with no constraints and infinite hope. That’s the destination. We held Albion and Arcadia close, twisted it into our own philosophy; we changed and mutated it along the way. It was our own personal mythology, our idiosyncratic, romantic ideal. It was the Greek myths with England at their heart: Homer and Blake.
The whole idea of Albion has got tangled up over the years, but the important thing was that Peter and I met in the middle with it; we chimed with that ideal. I truly believe that we’re still on that boat – at the very opposite ends of it right now, but still stuck on the same fucking sea.
I’ve lived in London since the summer of 1996, when I moved up to study drama at Brunel University. I wasn’t particularly popular in Whitchurch, near Basingstoke, where I grew up. I was something of a ghost, felt straitjacketed there, and had to move away. Some people pick their point of the compass and stick to it; all I ever wanted to be was at the heart of the action.
Richmond, though, seemed very far from that. It’s where I lived for most of my two short years at Brunel, hunkered down in the student halls on campus. I met Peter there, which was important in itself, but campus life also allowed me to plug into London’s social scene and student life meant I had money in my pocket – a ludicrous notion for most students now – as well as all the time in the world to spend it. I was always annoyed that my Richmond halls didn’t have a London postcode – they were in TW1, on the other side of the river – so I ended up moving with a friend to Sheen, in the first of many moves towards the heart of London. Sheen was SW14, I think, and we had a little old house next to Richmond Park, into which we used to creep at night and steal wood to burn in our fireplace, ambling back through the darkness weighed down with piles of wood. We’d cycle into Richmond together on my bike, the two of us careering along, one of us on the crossbar like the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’
On My Head’ running through my head, going way too fast, two miles there and two miles back. We thrived on the bright lights of central London, and every trip home from town was spent on the number 9 bus, which would inevitably see us waking up in Kingston, the end of the line, bodies contorted and mouths drooling, faces pressed up against the glass, Richmond some miles back. Kingston’s a very unforgiving place at seven in the morning. The driver would never let us stay on board the bus, even though there were never any other buses there and it would always be the next to depart. We’d stand for twenty minutes, bleary-eyed in the freezing cold, until he allowed us back on for the return journey – at which point we’d fall asleep again and wake up in fucking town. Sometimes it felt endless.
Peter’s sister Amy-Jo Doherty was the only person at Brunel I really felt a connection with during my short time studying there. From my vantage point in Whitchurch I’d imagined that, when going to London to university, I’d take rooms, and there’d be a succession of characters who’d process through my digs wearing bottle-green tweeds and carrying armfuls of leather-bound books tied with packing string – I think in my head I was going to Oxford circa 1930 in an Evelyn Waugh novel. What I actually found were people with golf clubs and Best of 1994 dance CDs. Amy-Jo was the one person I met there who seemed engaged with the sort of things I was looking for. We became best friends and she’d often tell me fantastic stories about Peter, an aspiring poet who was a year younger than her and still lived in the sticks. When he finally came up to visit, she asked me to look after him while she went to an evening class. He wasn’t really as I expected: very tall and wearing a kind of plastic jacket, looking quite ‘street’ – but then he’s always courageous with his outfits. The family resemblance was more than incredible. I’d heard a lot of good things about him, and he was interested in me because his big sister used to come home and talk about the new world of university, and particularly about this friend she’d met.
Straight away we began to talk about music. He was a massive Morrissey and Smiths fan, and his sister had asked me to write down the tablature to ‘This Charming Man’, but I didn’t know anything about The Smiths, and I’d transcribed ‘Charmless Man’ by Blur, instead. He didn’t play guitar very well, so I showed him a few things, and he played me his one song, ‘The Long Song’, which lived up to its name. I had some songs with terrible lyrics, and we started doing musical things together; we bonded over music very quickly. That first night, too, we had an argument over the meaning of a word. I can’t even remember what the word was now, but, finally, it felt as if I was getting the intellectual stimulation I’d been searching for and had been expecting from university. For me, it was a joyful moment. We began to meet up every time he came to town. He lived and breathed London – he’d go to charity shops and buy massive shoes and corduroy trousers, kitsch tea sets and Chris Barber vinyls, and he had a certificate to show he’d climbed the Monument – and just loved to draw it all in, for all the right reasons. I found that very charming.
I was learning things from him, too, although I wouldn’t have readily admitted it. I was performing the role of the older, experienced guy, and I’d try to play it like he was the little’un nipping at my feet. But in reality Peter knew a lot about the world I wanted to know. He’d read and read, and searched for authors to inspire him, and, by helping this passion come alive in me, helped me become more the person I wanted to be. He only made the trip to London every once in a while, so things progressed slowly. We’d said from the very beginning that we wanted to start a band, and kept on repeating it but to little effect. Amy would get him on the phone when we were out at night, drunk, and he’d say, ‘What about this band, then?’ That was all it was for a while – good intentions and drunken promises. It must have been a couple of years after we first met that we finally sat down properly, at my house. We wrote a song that became ‘The Good Old Days’ that first night, along with quite a few others, and I remember us sitting there, staring at each other in silence as the clock ticked towards dawn, searching for the right words. We were trying to find a line for the middle eight, and he’d tell you differently but I’m absolutely sure it was me who came up with it. Finally, we had: ‘A list of things we said we’d do tomorrow.’ We’ve argued since about whose line it was, but that seemed to be a moment when everything slotted into place, and it was quite a forerunner of things to come.”
Words by Carl Barât.
Carl Barât’s THREEPENNY MEMOIR: The Lives of a Libertine is out now.
The Libertines’ new album Anthems for Doomed Youth is released on September 4th 2015.
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