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The invite for The Insiders Party came in a blister pack on a blustery Wednesday afternoon. The plastic rectangle emblazoned with bare facts suggested there’d be little glamour in the occasion. It seemed to insinuate that were fame a drug, this party was your next hit. I wondered who’d sent me the coveted invite. Every aspiring artist in the city, from introspective bedroom musicians to confrontational comedians on the toilet circuit, craved this invite. I recalled a theremin solo I’d performed on a noisy art-rock bands debut single a few months ago, and put it down to that.
I’d all but abandoned any dreams of indie fame by the time it fell on my doorstep. I’d spent years playing the tortured front man in a string of bands that had failed to achieve stardom. I’d consoled myself with many excuses for this lack of success, blaming it variously on the rangy accomplices I employed and the haircut I hadn’t updated. Ultimately though, I knew the reason behind my failure was simple: lack of talent. I’d felt liberated by this realization, and quietly had retired from the music scene (with little column inches dedicated to my demise) to work as a hospital porter.
One day, a friend who worked at the local studio gave me a call. ‘I’ve got a band called The Charity Shop Pin Ups coming in this afternoon’ Martin had said. ‘They fall over too often to stay in time and I need someone, who knows his way round a tennis racket, to help knock their songs into shape. I’ll give you fifteen quid an hour if you’ll spend the afternoon with them’.
I’d been reluctant to spend that long with five malnourished boys desperate to inevitably appear on reality TV, but perhaps my indie dreams hadn’t died completely. I soon found myself in the studio, my unfaithful mistress of a guitar under my arm, slightly too keen to impress anyone nearby with a wonky haircut. The band was even more dreadful than I’d imagined; all spray on black jeans, panda-eyed ennui and bad posture. Every member was accompanied by a gum-chewing, hairspray-drenched girlfriend permanently glued to her mobile phone.
But having coaxed them through that afternoon, two months later I found the barrage of noise I’d negotiated from them smeared all over the radio. I blanched at those lyrics about Lady Diana and Maxine Carr, hollered over a mass of detuned guitars. I wasn’t surprised I’d never made it.
‘Is that an invite for The Insiders Party?’ Beverley asked, pinching it from my hands. The towel swathed around her head made her appear an odd combination of Cheltenham receptionist and tribal queen. ‘We’re going’ she instantly decided, the circles of makeup round her eyes widening as she clasped it to her chest. I knew that look. It was a look I’d imagine a call centre operative perhaps having if two of her lottery numbers appeared on screen, leaning forward with a false sense of inevitability, convinced she’ll soon be away from touchtone handsets forever.
I’d met Beverly when she was working on the reception at the local health spa. I used to cut through there to get to the practice rooms upstairs for free. Beverley seemed to understand the unrealistic dreams that fester in us, while being kindly dismissive of them coming to anything. One day, as I’d lugged my amplifier past her desk again, she’d offered me the spare room in her flat. I soon moved in and we became friends. Though she had little time for unrealistic ambitions, perhaps due to a reluctance to entirely accept her own life she was eager to be in the company of those she saw as glamorous. I’d see a look of ruthless ambition well up in her usually calm eyes. ‘No, no, you’re really good’ she’d say at the Dog and Parrot, when forty minutes of my bands songs had pushed every punter into the pool room. Once I moved in, I found her reassuring tone started to become a curiously addictive comfort.
A week later, despite my reservations, I felt a distinct sense of excitement as the taxi pulled up outside The Insiders Party. The drivers open disdain about the place only made Beverly and I feel privy to some secret pleasure. ‘This is it, I’m afraid’ he said, pulling up outside a grim-looking Catholic Working Men’s Club.
‘Ah, it’s incognito’ Beverley hissed, struggling with the vernacular. She pressed a note into the driver’s hand as a small mob of boys in badly applied makeup gathered round the entrance. ‘I’m going to get myself such a husband tonight’ she whispered, gathering up her Babydoll dress and splashing into the puddles outside.
I’d not expected lavish décor in a club keen to be cutting edge, but I was nonetheless surprised as we walked in to see the enormous contrast it housed. Haircuts and faces I’d only ever seen in digitally enhanced photos clutched cocktails and teetered about to Belle and Sebastian. They stood out against cheap tinsel that appeared left over from an office party. I’d always believed, ridiculously, that famous people lived in an enclosure separated from humanity by velvet rope. That they would never had to contend with standing in freezing rain for the number 29 bus, or dropping your groceries in the queue at the Co-op. But the contrast between their famous faces and the cheapness of the decor destroyed such misconceptions. The obscure film projected against the back wall, a mesh of soft-focus colors, seemed the room’s only concession to credibility.
We waited at the bar for overpriced gins. Beverly laughed infectiously at the barmaids’ needlessly fascistic queuing system. Kate Bush trilled out of the speakers, prompting a flurry of plastic handbags to be thrown down onto the dance floor, like synthetic campfires to be danced around by peroxide-haired Red Indians.
I’d seen this room so many times in pictures. I’d even studied them, hoping one day to be permitted access off the back of my own artistic merit. I’d somehow thought that being amongst these people would make me like them: influential, relevant, considered. As the dance floor filled, I got to know the internal lunge you feel when you see someone you recognize having never met them. They continue to stagger through their lives, but their proximity means more than you’d like to admit. It seems unfair that they are there existing in front of you, while the importance of it remains unacknowledged. Whenever I saw someone I recognized from a weekly glossy, I felt a ridiculous urge to approach them and say ‘is it really you? It’s just- I thought you lived in another world. Stop carrying on as though it’s not a big deal you’re here. I’m validated by being in a room with you.’ And then there’s that ridiculous desire to collect some sort of souvenir from them. An autograph, or an anecdote which includes ruffling their hair perhaps. Is that strange compulsion to transcend formality a symptom of the modern age, where anyone can be famous, yet it still feels that no one can?
Something childlike about these peculiar stars fascinated me. The dance floor was now filled with beta males in frilly shirts, po-going to Pulp with a dramatic lack of self-awareness. At school these charming, awkward misfits would have been bullied for their dreamy natures, but here their oddness was celebrated. For some reason I felt as if I was one of them. That their strangely sincere, spasmodic movements championed my own sense of isolation. Yes, I’d become a hospital porter instead of a celebrated synth-player, but even so I was here off the back of a reasonably good theremin solo I’d written. Even if I no longer lived my life in a wilderness of artistic misunderstanding, that sense of apartness hadn’t left me. And now these prophets of our particular triumphs, these malformed mediums of empathy, had joined The Insiders Party. The freak on the sidelines, unable to play on the left-wing at school due to asthma, was now centre-stage flinging gladioli and being considered.
It seemed they had paid their dues through years of standing sulkily at the side of the crowd. Now they were being lauded for the very characteristics that had separated them. There seemed something insincere about those who didn’t fit that description though. Who now applauded misfit behavior as inspired, but who’d have thrown chips at them on the bus a few years ago.
A group of petite women clutching fake fur stoles stood pigeon-toed at the side, waiting for their underfed heroes to leave their stage. I recognized in their faces expressions I’d seen before. It was the glare of the girl slightly ahead of the fashion at school. The one who’d turn her nose up at someone for wearing Doc Martins that were the wrong colour. But once a record deal validated your gawkiness, you became beyond reproach to such people. They seemed to only celebrate awkwardness when it became sanctioned by proper adults. Or perhaps after their teenage years they’d decided that such misfits represented the only possibility of escape from the mundane. The lack of self-consciousness amongst the famous ones, next to the acute self-awareness of the ex chip-throwers, made for an interesting contrast.
Beverly seized my arm. ‘Is that the singer from Loaded Lawn?’ she stage-whispered, pushing herself onto her toes. I looked around to see an unshaven man in his late twenties picking glitter off his shoulder, surrounded by a coterie of admirers. His features were obscured in the shadow cast by his baseball cap. I was struck by the way he composed himself. It seemed to immediately confirm his fame. The people around him were arranged in a strange hierarchy mediated by attention. Whoever he deemed worthy of listening to immediately smiled manically, as though they’d become special in the light of his reflected glory.
He held court like a medieval king, dismissing people for not being entertaining enough with ease. As a king might have ordered execution with a wave of his hand, he removed people by feigning acute boredom the instant they grew tiresome. Sometimes, more dramatically, he turned his head away from them mid-sentence, as if discarding them suddenly like a sweet wrapper. Amongst that group the greatest reward seemed to be his attention, or smile. I watched them for a minute, each flailing to catch his eye. What made him more important than anyone else? The medium he’d chosen had a ready-made platform for elevation, but who else in the room had similar ability, given the right chance? What separated him from the other unshaven men seemed to be merely implicit arrogance. It seemed a sudden dose of self-awareness might be indie kryptonite. Carry yourself like a star, it appeared, and the world soon acquiesced. The presumptuousness of such confident dishonesty then perpetuated itself.
Beverly was chatted up by a messy-haired bassist, eventually yielding to the details of his half-truths. The singer from The Charity Shop Pin Ups seemed pleased to catch my eye as his hand was stamped at the door. He appeared reluctant to greet me directly though, even if I had re-written his entire oeuvre in one afternoon. He carried himself with a careful shyness that courted attention, along with his handmade ‘I Hate The Kings of Leon’ t-shirt. Despite the warmth of my cynicism, I slipped into a fawning manner as we spoke, his shifting eyes passing over my face and shoulder. He didn’t mention that my efforts may have contributed to his success, or acknowledge that I had done anything for him. Our stilted, unbalanced, conversation faltered as a woman in black-rimmed glasses and a puffy dress stopped in front of him. ‘My god, it’s you!’ she hissed. ‘The singer from The Charity Shop Pin Ups.’ His reaction to her interested me. His first instinct was to be appalled by her sycophancy. But his second was to clearly wish she’d greeted him louder.
‘How are Alvin, Simon and Theodore?’ I asked as she shimmied away.
‘We’ve split up’ he replied. ‘We toured both sides of the Pennines, and then our bassist quit with nervous exhaustion’.
‘Is he checking into The Priory?’ I asked, tongue in cheek.
He nodded at a frail-looking woman in a satin skirt. ‘No. His parents live in the Cotswolds. They’re nursing him better.’
He continued talking, in a secretive whisper which thrilled me, describing his new plans. I was appalled to hear my words came out lacquered with effusiveness. I became horribly eager to laugh at the slightest humorous intonation in what he said. It had been few months since his flush of success, but despite having musicians queuing up to work with him he’d been unable to keep a new lineup together for a week. ‘I’ve had to start working at The Cash and Carry’ he said. ‘Though if anyone in music finds out, I’m finished’.
I wondered if brief fame had convinced him that he could be successful on a whim, that his catalogue of recent failure was meaningless. Or if he was sabotaging his efforts somehow to avoid the realization that his lucky break had passed. I wondered how he had the audacity to achieve success, but not the wherewithal to manage three people long enough to replicate it. The conversation stalled, having only ever been comfortable when focused on him, as a doll-like woman approached us. She wore an oversized pink dress, its sleeves burgeoning from her shoulders. She snaked her arm around his neck. ‘Fancy a little snifter darling?’ she asked, squeezing his shoulder. I noticed that the foundation on her face was an entirely different shade to that on her exposed cleavage. ‘They have unisex toilets here for a reason’ she whispered to him. A smug smile passed onto his face as he mouthed ‘what can you do?’ to me, before allowing himself to be pulled towards the cubicle.
A hand seized my elbow. I was relieved to see Martin with Beverly at his side, her lipstick a little smeared. ‘I hope you didn’t spend too long allowing him talk about him’ he said. ‘I can’t stand these musicians of limited talent, who vacuum cocaine at the first sign of success’.
‘Me neither’ I replied. As he removed his hand from my shoulder, I noticed at his side a slight girl with long eyelashes and a sequin on her cheek. It seemed she’d expected more glamour from the evening too. ‘This is Rebecca’ Martin said, pushing us closer. ‘And Rebecca, meet the man who turns useless latchkey kids into superstars.’ She smiled, and placed her hand on my elbow. It was twenty minutes later when I realized that I hadn’t stopped talking entirely about me to her. ‘Fancy a little snifter?’ she asked, pointing in the direction of the toilets. Martin had disappeared with Beverley. She took the glass out of my hand and I let her lead me away.
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. After being educated at Durham and Newcastle Universities, he formed a ‘Dickensian pop band’ with a group of ex-jazz chanteuses and multi-instrumentalists, toured many of England’s most disreputable music venues and signed a record deal on a Soho roof garden. Alba Nova released one EP, which brought some critical acclaim but no money. Guy now works as a psychologist in Newcastle.