Read Educating Peter Online

Authors: Tom Cox

Educating Peter (2 page)

It's always hard to work out what your parents tell their friends about your life, but you can normally guess that they make it sound considerably more interesting than it is and backdate it at least a couple of years. I couldn't tell exactly what mine had told Jenny at the party, but it had given her the idea that a) I wrote about music for a living, b) I hung out with rock stars all the time, c) I had a lot of free time this summer, d) I was desperate to take part in a road trip, and e) I was a responsible adult. What, Jenny had started to wonder, if Tom were to give Peter a kind of summer school in the realities of the rock musician's lifestyle? What if he were to take Peter around Britain, visiting landmarks and musicians, passing on his knowledge? Yes, Jenny would still have to find a new nanny, but it would take some of the pressure off her. It would also mean that Peter had someone to hang out with who was closer to his own age. Peter might be equally determined to pursue a career in music afterwards, but at least he'd have a more pragmatic, less impulsive view of his future, and plenty of ammunition to make decisions pertaining to it.

‘So what do you think?' asked Jenny.

‘Er . . . phew!' I said.

‘I know it's a strange proposal, and I'll totally
understand if you want to say no. But er . . . don't. Please!'

The truth was, I didn't quite know
to say, or whether to find her belief in me flattering or misguided. In reality, I probably wasn't quite who Jenny thought I was – or at least not any more. I
made my living by writing about music for national newspapers for much of the previous five years, but I was in the final stages of a career change. Like many of my contemporaries who'd opted to move from music journalism to other forms of writing, I'd gradually had my soul sucked dry by the industry, until listening to new CDs and conducting thirty-minute interviews in hotel rooms were in danger of becoming what I'd never thought they would be: chores, like those you encounter in real jobs. But I wasn't kidding myself that The Man was to blame for my weariness with a career deconstructing Eminem lyrics and being horrible to The Stereophonics. The
blame could be assigned to three much more persuasive factors:

With a few rare exceptions, I only liked music made between 1957 and 1980.

Gigs made my ears hurt.

I would rather be playing golf.

These days, my music writing amounted to an article every couple of months, focusing almost exclusively on the work of someone dead with a beard who'd once been in possession of an alarmingly large collection of lutes. The last CD I had bought was Chicago's
Greatest Hits
. The only semi-famous band I
had ever made friends with had stopped returning my calls after one of them was invited to appear on
Never Mind The Buzzcocks
. HMV bewildered me, MTV made me want to hide behind the sofa, excessive live music was known to give me ear infections, and the indie rock I'd bought as a teenager now sounded tuneless and I couldn't recall how or why it had ever sounded any different. I could hardly remember the last time I had stayed until the end of a gig, much less hung out backstage.

‘The thing is, Jenny,' I told her, ‘I love the idea in theory, but I might be a bit rubbish.'

‘The thing is, Tom,' said Jenny, ‘I don't mind. I'm not asking for much here. It's not that I want Peter to meet anyone really well-known or anything. Even if you were just to pass on some of your experiences, play him some records, take him to meet some of your mates – you know, even people who are involved in music in a minor way – that would be enough.

‘I mean, surely you can rustle a
of your old contacts up? What about that bloke, the one in the photograph that your mum and dad have got? You know, the one where he's sticking his tongue in your ear.'

‘Oh, Julian Cope?'

‘Yeah, that's him. He'd have time to meet up with you, wouldn't he? I bet he could teach Peter a thing or two.'

I pondered this for a second. Cope, who licked his fans' ears almost as often as he modelled his hair after a root vegetable (i.e. at least three times per month), had once been the lead singer of the excellent new
wave group The Teardrop Explodes, but now divided his time between writing books on Neolithic Britain, recording the occasional solo album and turning up unannounced in small villages in Wiltshire to play gigs with his novelty band, Brain Donor, while dressed in preposterously large leather boots. I thought back to the last time I'd met him: the electricity in his handshake, the inspiring logic at the heart of his surreal, breathless ramblings. It
been like meeting a real rock star, hadn't it?

I couldn't be sure that Cope would agree to meet with me. He was kind of elusive, and at one point in the mid-Eighties had locked himself in his room for several weeks, surviving only on the water biscuits his wife pushed under the door. But perhaps there were more like him out there. In fact, I knew there were. I'd met several of them over the last few years: eccentric, damaged icons, folk heroes and psychedelic loons who shunned the corporate trappings of the modern music industry, yet found their own niche within the essential musical fabric of the British Isles. I might not manage to locate many of them, and those that I did find might not fancy spending time in the company of a golf-loving Eagles fan and a bored teenager in oversized trousers, but a sliver of hope began to emerge. Maybe I wouldn't find that elusive ‘real' Britain after all, but here at least was the chance to have a lot of fun failing to do so. I tried to think of the worst thing that could happen. All I came up with was getting lost in an industrial estate in Greater Swindon. I
to get lost in an industrial estate in Greater Swindon.

‘Come on, Tom,' said Jenny. ‘It will be fun! Why
not come and meet him, and we'll take it from there?'

Irresistible vanity washed over me: I was going to be in charge here. This would be
version of a musical education. I could do this in any way I chose.

‘Which day's good for you two, then?' I said.

One factor I hadn't really stopped to consider was Peter himself. What were fourteen-year-olds like these days? Moreover, what were
like? It was only seven years since I'd been one, yet it struck me, somewhat frighteningly, that I seemed to have entirely forgotten what it was like. Now, when I thought of adolescents, I thought of the pavement outside the London Astoria in the build-up to a nu-metal gig: the pseudo-threatening band names . . . my inadvertent need to cross to the opposite side of the road . . . the accoutrements of a new kind of hollow-eyed corporate rebellion . . . the cries of ‘Nigel, where's Jasmine? She's got my System Of A Down t-shirt!'

I'd found teenagers scary and slightly confusing when I was one myself; now I just found them perplexing and unsavoury. I did my best to live and shop in places where they didn't, and generally avoided them in the street, half-convinced that they were either going to ask me to give them a counselling session or beat me up for looking at their ‘bird'. Earlier in the year, a national newspaper had commissioned me to write a feature which involved manufacturing my own boy band. My editor had instructed me to head out on to the streets of the capital to recruit ‘talent' between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, but I'd spent the afternoon browsing in second-hand
bookshops instead. In the end, my band, Boyzcout, had been constructed out of a group of friends in their mid-twenties, all of whom, after the influence of make-up, had the common trait of looking twenty-four instead of twenty-seven. We'd tried hard to pack plenty of *NSync harmonies and hip, modern references to text-messaging and the dot com world into our single, ‘Zcouting For Boyz' – ‘I'll zcout for you babe while we're out zcouting for boys' – but record company A&R men had rejected the demo for being too mature. ‘It's a bit like
magazine in musical form,' said one.

I knew I was turning into an old fart, perhaps prematurely, but I didn't care. There was no shame in my love of The Eagles, Journey's ‘Don't Stop Believing', fuzzy dressing gowns, Sainsbury's Taste The Difference range, weak beer, golf and the VH1 Classic Rock channel; just lots of self-righteous enjoyment. I'd spent the previous seven years becoming increasingly scornful of my former self. I'd sold his records, taken the piss out of his hairstyle and mercilessly mocked his tactics with women. Occasionally I felt the odd bit of reluctant affection for him, of course, but ultimately I thought he was a wally – although I certainly believed his spiritual descendants to be a thousand times worse.

I was fully aware that it was a cliché to feel like your generation had made better things of their youth than the generation that followed, but that didn't stop me feeling the same thing with every fibre of my being. To put it bluntly, today's teens repelled me. I didn't like their grunting, complaining music, I didn't like their
shapeless clothes, I didn't like the prongs of gel-plastered hair on their fringes, I didn't like their baseball caps, I didn't like the big speakers in their cars, I didn't like their piercings and I didn't like the way they hassled me for bus fares in the market square of my home town. And, from the little bits of evidence I could gather, they probably weren't gagging to add me to their speed dial either. When I had tried to convey my honest sentiments about youth trends such as nu-metal, skateboarding and gangsta rap in a newspaper article, I'd inevitably received an angry letter in response from a frustrated sixteen-year-old with a name like Toad or Jemima, lambasting me for a) my lack of understanding of the isolation the modern adolescent feels, and b) my lack of comprehension about why Slutbone or Composition Of A Horse had to insert the word ‘plasma' into every second verse of their lyrics. This, naturally, had the effect of making me feel even more righteous.

Peter was an anomaly in that he didn't fit into either of the categories in which I'd come to place teens: he didn't remind me distastefully of the old version of me, but he didn't remind me distastefully of the people I used to have fights with at school either. From our initial, fleeting encounter, I'd worked out several things about him: that he was tall for his age, that he was considerably better educated than I had been at his age, that black was his favourite colour, that he was uncomfortable with his hair, and that he had watched the Oliver Stone biopic
The Doors
at some point in the previous twenty-four hours. He was the essence of sub-Jim Morrison hangdog adolescence, yet he was
something alien to me, too – a kind of teenager that I'd never been in a position to have to understand. Jenny might have been friends with my parents from her student days, but while they still lived in a cosmopolitan enough area of North Nottinghamshire, she had long ago moved to a subregion of North London where it was possible to buy a jar of pimento-stuffed olives from any one of seven local outlets at three o'clock in the morning. She'd sent Peter to the local independent school, where, among the children of art gallery owners, daytime TV presenters and pop stars, he was groovily encouraged to learn in the direction that he wanted to learn. Having been to a comprehensive school whose twin areas of progressive excellence were football and beating the living crap out of the year below you, I didn't quite comprehend what this style of education involved, but I was almost certain that it meant Peter knew a lot bigger words than I'd known at his age, and probably a few bigger ones than I knew now.

Would we get on? Did Peter have any enthusiasm for the project, or did he just see it as something his mum had pushed him into? It was far too early to tell. By the end of Peter's first encounter with me, his only gestures of communication had been ‘Mmmmawwwrighttt' and ‘Yeah, s'even better than
Back In Black
.' Jenny, ever helpful, had assured me that in normal English this translated, respectively, as ‘Hello! You must be Tom, the music writer who is going to help me further my development and learn about multifarious aspects of our musical heritage!' and ‘I'm so glad we both like the work of AC/DC! I
think this provides an indication that we're going to get along just spiffingly!', but I wasn't so confident. It occurred to me that, as a premature fogey, I'd spent my whole adult life hanging around with people older than me, people who treated me as their equal but always with the unspoken agreement that I was their apprentice. It didn't matter how many Hall And Oates albums I bought; providing my mates were older than me, I would always feel slightly wet behind the ears. Now the situation was reversed. I was about to spend six months feeling old for the first time in my life, and I wasn't sure I liked the idea. My parents, who had both made a living as teachers while I was growing up, had warned me from an early age not to follow their career path, and I wondered if I was about to find out why. Sure, moulding Peter in my image would be a great way to get my own back on a generation that got on my nerves, but I could see, from five minutes in his company, that there would be minimal effort on his part. He wasn't going to make me feel like he was the least bit interested in me, my life or my friends. And I would have to learn a whole new way of speaking and acting: patient, cool, encouraging, effervescent, selfless, yet somehow disciplined and slyly exemplary.

In the week that preceded my first official journey with Peter, Jenny and I began to draw up an itinerary for the summer. Due to Peter's school commitments, this would be no ordinary road trip: it would take place in carefully planned stages, featuring minimal late nights and plenty of wholesome food. Long journeys might be a problem, particularly on school
nights, as would the distance between my house, in Norfolk, and Jenny's, in Crouch End. I started to wonder just how much time I would be spending on the London Orbital and what I would do to relieve the boredom. So much, I thought, for my loose, free-livin' road trip, where every day was a magical mystery tour.

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