Illustration by Brian DeGraw
Vice: When did you start writing fiction?
I used to put out fanzines when I was a teenager. Sometimes I would invent my own imaginary bands and interview them. Later I got a job writing the quotes that go with the photo shoots in porno mags. I’ve carried on making things up ever since.
A couple of people said this piece was a bit of a dig at Vice.
Well, it was originally a pre-recorded spoken word piece that was used as part of a night put on by the artists Brian Degraw and Oliver Payne. I recorded it on a Dictaphone at six in the morning before getting hit by a car outside the Houses Of Parliament thirty minutes later. It’s a dig at a lot of things, including myself.
had been tipped off in advance that Dave wanted to see me. A cross between David Koresh and David Ike dressed from head to toe in Japanese street wear brands, Dave was the owner of the trendy clothes shop I worked in. Someone had told him that I was selling the limited edition Nike trainers the shop sold, on eBay for ten times their recommended retail price. I’m ashamed to say, this is all true, but in my defence I had paid for every pair I sold. Surely then, I mentally rehearsed, it was my business if I wore them or gave them away or sold them for a vast profit or loss. What if I held on to them and gave them to my children who then sold them as antiques after I had died? Would that be so different? But like I said, I wasn’t supposed to know any of this, so when Dave’s PA phoned to ask if I would come into his office for a meeting I cheerfully agreed.
Like so many jobs, working in a trendy clothes shop was only meant to be a stopgap thing whilst I tried to find my feet again. After free falling for most of my twenties, the routine the job offered had come as a welcome relief. I saw it as a chance to straighten myself out. At the time I had nearly finished writing a rambling first novel. Now I thought I would be able to find the time in my new boring life to pursue my writing more purposefully.
Seven years later I was still struggling to finish it. The longer I stayed in the shop, the more I became convinced that without the routine I would effortlessly slip into one of the many ruts I had once been stuck in. But the rut I was in now was bigger than any possible rut that I was trying to avoid.
At least I had something to say before. The longer I remained in the shop the less I seemed to have to write about. What could a middle-aged man working in a trendy clothes shop possibly have to say that’s remotely interesting? If you’re looking for life you’re more likely to find it in a morgue than in a trendy clothes shop. A post office or six years on the dole doing nothing but smack and watching Third Reich movies (thanks Tony Ogden R.I.P) but never in a trendy clothes shop. It’s dead end but it’s not so doomed that you can dress it up as poetic or romantic. Charles Bukowski would never have written a book called “Trendy Men’s Clothes Shop”. I was neither the struggling pianist playing for tips in a bar or the ballet dancer who works as an exotic entertainer to pay the bills. Even the same customers I pitied confided in me because they saw themselves when they saw me festering like a trendy zombie behind the counter.
Like others, I dreamt of leaving a mark other than just my gravestone to prove that I too had walked this earth. How I was to go about this changed as I got older. At first it had been as a footballer but later it had been as a front man in a rock’n’roll band. By the time I reached my mid twenties and working in a desperate sex shop in a piss alley in Soho I had made a compromise: I was going to be a writer. That had been over ten years ago.
By now I knew I was never going to be a Nabokov or a Capote but I knew if I could somehow turn around my life I could still be a something. I was trying to be realistic. Once upon a time I dreamt of writing the literary equivalent of the 36 Chambers but I couldn’t see this happening any more. Don’t get me wrong I still had hope. I could still picture myself—if I pulled my finger out—writing something on a par with a later Lieutenant Pigeon single that only got played infrequently on German radio in the 70s. That’s not so bad I would console myself. Jarvis Cocker even chose “Mouldy Old Dough” by the Pigeon as one of his Desert Island Discs. At least they’ve got something to say, if their grandchildren ask them but what have they ever done? Not a forgotten classic like Emmanuel Bove’s “My Friends” or Tom Kromer’s “Waiting for Nothing” but still a forgotten something. It was better than nothing. It was a mark. A tag on one of life’s walls to let them know I had been here. It might not be playing live in front of a quarter of a million people at Knebworth while Patsy Kensit watches from the side of the stage but it was still was a mark. Only one other person in the world other than myself had to read it to prove that it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination. It didn’t even have to be a novel. It could be a short story. If I could write a single sentence in my lifetime to rival one of Fitzgerald’s I would be happy. It didn’t even have to be a book. Plenty of great stories appear in newspapers and magazines, but before you get any ideas, I’m not advocating not reading new books either. It didn’t have to be the Literary Review. It could be Dazed And Confused (I used to sneer that I would never write for such a rag but now I would beg them for a chance) or the Radio Times. Or one of those magazines that look a bit like Dazed and Confused that only the editor’s mates know the names of. I was so desperate that I would consider writing my own obituary for one of the free magazines they give away in the clothes shop. I just needed a chance to prove that I was alive.
Dave stared at me from across his huge desk. He asked me why had I committed the ultimate act of betrayal as he saw it? I told him the truth. How it had been Christmas and I wanted to be able to buy my godchildren (hello, Poppy and Hank) Christmas presents. How I wanted to take them to see that film about the penguins everybody was raving about. I asked him if he had a nice Christmas lying on the beach in Hawaii? As a family man he must be able to understand what I was saying.
“That’s not the point,” he snapped impatiently.
“You exploited your position in the shop to buy shoes to sell again on eBay.”
“I only bought what I was entitled to,” I countered. “Once I bought the shoes, surely it was up to me what I did with them.”
“Why do you even bother working for us?”
I told him I worked in the shop for the same reason that anybody works in a shop like this: to pay my rent and to be able to eat.
He stopped me there. “Other people work in our shops because they believe in what we stand for.”
“What? How can they possibly believe in what you stand for when the T-shirts with the shop’s name are fifty pounds and they only get paid forty pounds a day? I’m sorry,” I continued, “but I don’t feel guilty about what I’ve done.”
“I don’t care what you feel,” Dave snapped.
I said sorry again but I still didn’t feel guilty about what I had done.
Dave said if he heard any more complaints about me I would be instantly dismissed. Up till then I had been certain that I was going to get the sack. In fact I had been so excited at the prospect of never working there again I couldn’t sleep the night before. Instead I lay awake dreaming of the novels that I was going to write. But suddenly I could see the cell door shutting in slow motion before my eyes. Dave was going to grant me a reprieve but it felt like he was throwing away the key to my cell. That’s it, I thought desperately. That’s it: I was going to die here. I looked up at him with tears in my eyes and began to speak.
“I can’t face another day working in that shop. My facial muscles ache whenever I’m forced to discuss the finer points about the work of Stash and Futura 2000. I can’t bear listening to people tell me that those plastic “figurines” made by Silas deserve their own retrospective at the Tate Modern. Or when some T-shirt maker tells me, as if he was an artist explaining his latest work to his gallerist, that the reason he has borrowed the Cramps typeface to write his company’s staid name is not because he hasn’t got a single idea of his own but because he wants to diffuse the spirit of the Cramps with a contemporary aesthetic, I want to grab the sides of his mouth and puke down his throat until he drowns. And when the Street Energy Global Advisor from Nike namedrops that Sharleen Spiteri from Texas sang “Happy Birthday” at his fiance’s birthday before he dropped down on bended knee, what could I have possibly said? How romantic? I’ve always admired the work of Texas from afar? It makes me want to put a gun in my mouth and blow my bloody brains out. And when people confide in me that “Bathing Ape has lost it”, when what they really mean is “ever since the black kids started wearing it”, how do you think that makes me feel? To quote Spiritualized quoting Spacemen 3: “Lord can you hear me?” I’m begging you, please have mercy on me. I might have done things that are bad but I’m not a bad guy. All I want is a bit of meaning in my life. If doesn’t even have to be all the time, just sometimes, occasionally, part time. Once every leap year or even once in my lifetime would be nice. I’m not asking to be Bob Dylan. I just want to be someone sometimes. Please. I’ve beaten cancer once but I’m not sure if I can do it again. Please, please, please you have to help me live again. Just put me out of my sick grovelling pathetic misery and fire me… Please”
I didn’t think that Dave could believe what he was hearing. That morning when he had told his PA that he wanted to fire me there on the spot, she had told him he’d better be careful; that nowadays, if you don’t follow correct procedures, I could turn around and sue him.
“Sue me?” he had asked, bewildered. “What is the world coming to when someone who has been stealing from me can sue me?”
I slowly put my hands up to show him I wasn’t armed.
Dave stood up and looked me up and down before speaking.
After seven years in a trendy clothes shop, it felt like I had been promoted.
The author would like to thank Brian Degraw and Oliver Payne for inspiring this piece.