It has been an embarrassing, five, long years since I had retuned to my place of birth. A small, impoverished district of South London, confused by pockets of gentrification but with the suggestion of wanton neglect. Mostly caused by the selling-off of the council houses to greedy housing associations, the generations that were born and bred here, are pushed out to housing estates further afield and the aspirational are forced to buy up, and invade wider London, due to ever-increasing house prices.
I’m paying a visit to my ageing parents, who have lived here all their lives and have watched its surprising transition. I left this desperate place nearly thirty years ago and resisted ever returning, for it’s a reminder of the struggle and frustration I knew back then. So why the return after such a long absence? In the last two years, my wife has left me, I have lost my boring, advertising job and my twin, grown boys have moved to a distant university to get away from me. The common complaint from my wife, my boss and my children is that I’m just not the same man they once knew. “Tommy, you’ve changed!” they all say.
I have felt depressed and directionless since my life turned upside down, so my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to return to the home I grew up in, where I was well-loved and always encouraged to be myself.
I have only been here a couple of days, when suddenly I realise I have already had enough of being curled up on the family sofa feeling sorry for myself whilst my parents go about their still active lives in their sixties. It takes a lot of resolve but I manage to drag myself off the soft cushions, throw on some clothes and decide to take a walk along the high street I use to know so well forty-five years ago, until I moved away aged eighteen.
As I wander down the bustling thoroughfare, I observe the buildings that haven’t changed but the occupants that have. The old bank is now a betting shop. I can see the remnants of where the original, pronounced signage would have been affixed, now replaced with a cheap, plastic banner simply hanging by its sagging corners. Woolworths is now a Poundland, sandwiched between a pawn broker and a vape kiosk. Yet, what has changed is the humorous, sporadic appearance of hipster cafes amongst the retailers that serve a demand for gambling and pawning, and enabling addiction to a desperate community.
About two thirds of the way down the busy road, I recognise the blue carcass of an old shoe shop that sprung up shortly before I left home for good. Its attempt at success was very short-lived, and even when I left in 1976, it had been vacant for a couple of years already. On the odd occasion I did return, little had ever changed to it. It seemed no one wanted, or could afford, to rent these premises for their franchise or business idea. The name Shoe Fayre still identified the building but it was faded and the once vibrant, blue and yellow lettering was now a furry brown.
I peered hard through the opaque, grimy windows, expecting to spy strewn, open shoe-boxes on a dusty, aged carpet, or broken shelving toppled over but as my eyes adjusted, I was surprised at what I could see inside.
Looking in, with my hands pressed up against the window, I could make out an array of brightly-coloured, overlapping, music posters hugging the walls. Twinkling, fairy-lights were draped all around the fixtures and the largest disco ball I have ever seen, dangled precariously from the centre of the ceiling. On the shop-floor stood many tables. Atop them, were boxes filled with hundreds of plastic-protected, vinyl records. As it dawned on me I was looking into a record shop, simultaneously the sound of bass and percussion vibrated through the dirty glass, into the tips of my fingers and up my arms to my curious eyes and ears.
I decided to try the door handle, and sure enough it gave way to the pressure of my grip and forceful push. I tentatively entered, whereupon the tinkling of a bell rang out above my head signalling my entrance. In a flash, I suddenly remembered… so vividly, that there was indeed a wonderful record shop here for ten years before the failed shoe shop arrived. I would spend many Saturdays there, listening to new music and sharing the enthusiasm with my friends and other music-loving strangers.
From out the back, through the parting of clicking, hanging, wooden beads, appeared a funny-looking fellow. He wore large shades, a red bandana on his head and a full beard. “Hey, Man! Welcome to Popped Up. How can I help you today?”
Still stunned, I didn’t answer but just enquired, “Are those vinyl listening booths back there? I haven’t seen those in years.”
“Yeah, Man!” he replied. “Try before you buy!”
“Many years ago, there was a record shop just like this… right here, but it must have closed around 1974. I use to come here as a teenager to discover new music,” I shared.
“That’s right, Man!” he replied. “That was my Grandaddy that owned that. He was so passionate about music. When he died recently, I thought, ‘Life is too short to work a shitty job’. And that’s when I jacked mine in, created this place and styled it on photos my Grandaddy had of his shop. Please have a look around. Inspect the goods, and if you wanna listen to anything, the booths are right back there.”
“Thanks!” I eagerly replied, and started flicking through the sections marked A-D.
There was everything one could conjure up. From Abba to Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan to Bread and Cat Stevens to Candi Staton. At D, I come upon an extensive collection of David Bowie albums. Fond memories bubble up from within, excitedly recalling how Bowie’s music had the power to profoundly move and inspire me as a young man. Then my fingers fall on his eponymous album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Relentless waves of nostalgia flood over me. I wonder what it would feel like to listen to the record in a listening booth, just as I did 30 years ago but now as a much older and wiser adult?
I slipped into the tiny space that was booth number one. It was very basic and old fashioned-looking but multi-coloured graffiti adorned the narrow walls. I consider this might be fake wallpaper to give the illusion of time gone by but it was true, back then we would write on the walls when visiting.
Gently, as if handling a newborn kitten, I slide the vinyl disc out of its pristine sleeve, being careful not to handle it with too much pressure and keeping my fingers away from its glistening grooves. Tenderly, I place the LP onto the turntable and carefully drop the needle. Quietly, the heart-beating drums on the first track, Five Years, slowly grow in volume and then the vocals begin. Introducing me to the tale of an Earth on the brink of imminent destruction, Bowie now evokes in me the same emotions I felt as a teenager listening to it for the first time. Despair, resignation and acceptance of a struggling world but the confidence, sexiness and inspiration to be myself and fulfil my ambitions, and the permission to conquer the world on my terms. Nostalgic memories return to a defiant time but lost in the music, I suddenly hear a faint voice interrupt Bowie through the speakers of the booth. “Hey! Who are you?” they whisper.
“Hello?” I reply, confused.
“What are you listening to?” the voice asks.
Stuttering, I respond with, “Err… David Bowie… Ziggy Stardust?”
“Oh, I love that album. I’m listening to it as well… in booth number three. I think it will change my life!” the voice excitedly proclaims.
“Yeah,” I say. “It changed my life.”
“How? How did it change your life?” questioned the inquisitive voice with no regard for my privacy.
Thinking carefully about my answer, I cautiously explain how after listening to this album, I knew I could be myself without embarrassment and that I could pursue my dreams without resistance.
“Ooh! That’s cool… that’s how it makes me feel too!” the voice eagerly agrees. “I think I should no longer worry about what I’m wearing or who I’m friends with. I think I should only do the things I love, and not care about what any oldies, snobs or bigots may think. And you? How’s it working out for you since this album changed your life?”
“Erm….?” I blundered with my words. “Now thinking about it, not so great actually, I seem to have forgotten what I thought I knew back then.”
With that answer, I suddenly felt unsteady on my feet, as if the metaphorical rug had just been pulled from under me. It was then I realised that the album had changed how I felt but somehow I had lost my way. I had traded my individual style for a Burton suit, abandoned my dreams of becoming a furniture maker for a job in advertising and stopped talking to my children like they were the unique, wonderful people that they are. How had this happened? Hope, individuality, friendship, vision and ambition isn’t just for teenagers, they can exist for an entire lifetime! Just look at Bowie. He never stops trying new things or taking risks, whether his ideas succeed or fail, he continues to break the mould.
With that epiphany, I told the young-sounding voice, “ Don’t ever forget what you told me today. Keep being yourself and follow your dreams, and most importantly, surround yourself with people that encourage you, not hold you back. That will give you the best chance at achieving success and happiness in life.”
“Ahw! Thanks friend,” he replied. “I’ll remember that when I may forget my way. Not sure how you forgot so quickly but it’s never too late to follow your dreams…. or make new ones! Byee!”
“Hey, wait! Don’t go without telling me your name? Hello…? Hello?” I pleaded. But by the time my words tailed off, the voice was silent and all I could hear was the arm of the turntable lift off side A and return itself to its rest. I turned around to catch the owner of the inspiring voice but only witnessed the shimmy of the bell above the exit and the front door gently close shut.
I quizzed the strange shop owner, who was now perched on a stool behind a pay desk next to the door, “Hey, who was that, that just left?”
Bewildered, he replied, “Err? No one, Man. It’s only been you in here today.”
Frustrated, I insist again, “But there was someone here… just now… in booth three. I could hear them through the speakers!”
Although affronted, the owner sincerely explains, “That’s impossible, Man! No one’s been here, besides what you claim is technically impossible!”
Alarmed, I scurry back to booth three to investigate. Glancing in, I could clearly see there was no record on the turntable. In fact, there was no evidence of anyone ever having been there except for the graffiti on the walls which I once thought was fake. But there, amongst declarations of ‘Steve loves Linda” and ‘Led Zep Rule’, was my own name and handwriting with a date next to it. Scrawled on the wall in wet, red ink, clear as day and bold as brass, are the words, Tommy Smith woz ‘ere, 1972.
Startled and shaken, I said ‘Goodbye’ to the still bemused owner and wandered back to my parents’ home, wondering what I had just experienced. Yet my new, young friend's advice kept ringing in my ears and filling my head. Life is so short and time flies. I don’t want to waste anymore time regretting the past and dwelling on my misfortune. Right now is the moment to reclaim my individuality, my identity, my dreams and my life again.
In my childhood, single bed, I slept soundly for the first time in many months. After I thanked, hugged and said goodbye to my loving parents, I confidently made my way back to the train station, to return home and clean up the mess I had made of my life. I passed the fallen shoe outlet one more time and peered in. Through the dirty windows, all I could see was strewn, open shoe-boxes on a dusty, aged carpet and broken shelving, toppled over.