The Fine Art of Self-Destruction

Although the trains between Oban and Glasgow generally operate between meal times, there always seems to be an instinctive need to snack when travelling on them.  I have never known why it is, but when you look around any table on the 12.11 service you will see them decorated with pretty paper Costa bags, Subway sandwiches and large bags of Kettle’s crisps.  And these are all people who probably ate a large lunch before they boarded the train.  There’s just something about the prospect of spending three hours enclosed in a boiling metal container that has people stocking up as though they might never see food again.

In my modest backpack I was carrying three peaches and two bananas.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten a peach, though it seemed unlikely that it had been within the current century.   Despite my lack of recent peach experience, it caught my eye whilst shopping in Lidl that they had the fruit on offer at 59p for a punnet of six, which if nothing else would at least finally provide me with a retort to the question of what can you get for ten pence these days?  If anyone should sarcastically ask that in the general area of my presence, I could tell them:  “well, actually, you could get yourself a peach and still have a penny change.

I approached the checkout with a basket filled with peaches, bananas, four cans of Budweiser and a few other items which I wasn’t going to need until after my train journey.  The queue was unusually long for a Monday afternoon, or at least it was longer than I had imagined the line would be, having never actually shopped at three o’clock on a Monday before.  It was when I eventually reached the self-service till, having scanned each of my items through the system, that I became much more aware than ever before of my need to make contact with the card reader, even when making a contactless payment with my debit card.  I was feeling a sense of unease, perhaps even embarrassment, when I realised that not only was I touching the device with my purple plastic debit card, but I was holding it firmly against the screen until the payment had been recognised.  It was clear that I was substituting my emotional need for intimacy, for contact, for a £9.87 payment for groceries.

On the train, I unpacked the fruit from my luggage just as the others around me were placing their own food on the table.  The white-haired woman sitting opposite me unveiled a sandwich that was the most tightly wrapped in clingfilm I had ever seen.  The wrapping job was perfect, as though it was a tourniquet holding a wounded salmon together until it could make it into surgery.  Watching the whole thing, I couldn’t help but feel shame about my own use of clingfilm, which is so loose that it resembles a Club 18-30 holiday.  By the time the sandwich had been unwrapped, it was obvious that the salmon had not made it.

At the table across the carriage, a middle-aged couple whose accent depicted a Yorkshire charm became involved in a dispute with one another when a third party at their table pointed out that their sodden Costa bag was leaking coffee onto the surface.  The woman hastily removed two cups which were stained with brown from the bag while her other half sighed, his face as stern as a weather-beaten granite statue.  “We’re going to have to get rid of these coffees ASAP,” the man said, speaking the final part of his sentence as though it was a word, rather than the initialism most people commonly use.  Other than drinking the coffees, I couldn’t see what their options were.

Jesse Malin performed The Fine Art of Self-Destruction at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on Thursday 20 June

As I was unpeeling my banana, the passenger sitting next to me was using the Spotify app on his mobile phone to listen to the greatest hits album by Midge Ure.  He pressed play as the train was leaving the station in Oban, and by the time it had reached the first stop in Connel fifteen minutes later, his earphones were coiled on the area in front of him, alongside his phone and his glasses.

Around an hour had passed since consuming the banana when I was beginning to feel the need to eat again.  I hadn’t purposefully left it so long before thinking about having the peach because I was looking forward to it, the way I’ll sometimes leave my favourite song until the last selection on the jukebox, but more because I was feeling anxious about eating a peach in front of other people.  It’s not that I didn’t know how to eat a peach, just that it had been so long since I had eaten one that I had forgotten how to do it without looking like someone who hasn’t eaten a morsel of food in five months.

With the peach sat on the table staring back at me, I was reminded of a similar situation I found myself in some years earlier on the same train when I was sitting opposite a mother and her son, who was no more than five-years-old and who had peeled the skin from an orange in one attempt and in the fashion of an elephant’s trunk.  I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about the two satsumas I was carrying in my bag.  My anxiety was justified when I began peeling the first of the satsumas and it turned into an arduous demonstration of my method of stripping old wallpaper from a wall, taking at least eight tries at removing all of the orange peel.  I felt disillusioned, and even though the young boy’s head was buried in a colouring book, I was sure that he was silently judging me.  Not only that, but he was probably staying within the lines, too.

I was keen to avoid a repeat of the orange peel incident and ensure that I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of my fellow passengers, particularly when I could recall that a good, ripe peach has the potential to be very juicy.  It was this that was troubling me, in addition to the furry texture of the skin, which was key to my uncertainty over how the fruit should be eaten.  I used the Safari browser on my phone to Google the phrase “how to eat a peach,” and the first result was a WikiHow page which offered the helpful advice that a peach is eaten like an apple.  Confidently I sunk my teeth into the skin and found that the fruit was not entirely ripe.

My first calling point in Glasgow was MacSorley’s on Jamaica Street, a city centre bar which had reopened the previous Friday following its closure in 2018.  I had a faint memory of a busy night drinking in there with a wild-haired friend some years earlier, and it seemed like a good location to while away a couple of hours before the Jesse Malin gig I was attending later in the night.  The bar was the brightest I had seen anywhere, with late afternoon sunlight falling in through the impressive stained glass windows and an entire solar system of spotlights sparkling from the ceiling.  A selection of music was playing over some speakers, though the volume would suddenly go from being very loud to barely audible, in the way of a conversation in the pub, and I was left tapping my foot to a beat I couldn’t quite hear.

The couple along the other side of the bar from me was keeping a more steady volume, and they seemed to be involved in a dare which had challenged them to speak exclusively using words that were four letters long.  After a drawn-out dispute over the technicalities of saving a photograph from a WhatsApp message to use as a screensaver, the couple asked one of the barmen for suggestions of a drink that the raspberry-haired woman could try as an alternative to vodka, which seemingly is much too easy to drink and doesn’t last nearly as long as a pint of lager.  The barman poured various schooners of Heineken, Amstel, fruit ciders and Neck Oil IPA, and despite the latter drink’s pleasing elderflower fragrance, the woman decided that she would have another vodka after all.  I was watching the scene unfold with interest and the cynic within me wondered whether it was all an elaborate rouse to score some free drinks, rather than a genuine concern over equity.

My observation of the couple had provided a brief distraction from my ongoing curiosity regarding the dish of blueberries behind the bar, beside the wedges of lemon and lime.  I couldn’t determine what use a blueberry would have in a pub, and I was thinking about it so much that it was all I could do to ask the barmaid when it came time to order another beer.  The young woman behind the bar had a stature that put me in mind of a cocktail stick, and I worried that my question would knock her over.

“I can’t stop looking at the pile of blueberries there.  What kind of drinks would you use them in?”

“I’m not really sure,” the barmaid bristled.  “No-one has ever asked that.”  Considering that the bar had not yet been open for a week it didn’t come as a surprise to me that no-one had asked about the blueberries, though it seemed inevitable that they would in time.

The barmaid’s striking pink eye shadow must have mirrored the colour of my cheeks when she suggested that she would ask her supervisor about the blueberries.  After a few moments she returned with a tall man who had a beard which implied knowledge and wisdom.  The barmaid told her supervisor about my blueberry query, and suddenly my vague attempt at flirtatious banter had turned into a full-scale investigation.  I sunk into my barstool the way my heart had been sucked into my liver as the barman explained that sometimes people like blueberries with vodka and lemonade, or occasionally in gin or combined with a daiquiri.  Now the music gets louder, I was thinking as they walked away.

Before I left MacSorley’s for King Tut’s I made use of the bathroom, where I discovered a large chalkboard on the back wall of the men’s room.  The board was headed ‘The Graffiti Wall’, and it was presumably a device installed to prevent people from inscribing telephone numbers on the doors of cubicles with suggestions of a pleasant night.  On top of the hand dryer, which was adjacent to the Graffiti Wall, sat two pieces of white chalk, and as I was drying the water from my hands I was feeling the urge to make my own addition to the board.  Hands up if you like to pee seemed in keeping with traditional toilet humour, but I became worried about the integrity of the writing equipment and thought better of handling it.  The Graffiti Wall seemed like a good idea all the same, though, and as I walked to King Tut’s I spent some time considering how it would be used in Aulay’s Bar.

Although Jesse Malin had played his debut album The Fine Art of Self-Destruction in full in November 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of its release, and there wasn’t any obvious reason for doing it again eight years later, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear it performed live once more.  The Fine Art of Self-Destruction was one of the seminal records of my budding adulthood.  It came at a time when I was learning about the types of music I enjoy and the bands I was wanting to spend my time listening to.  The first ten tracks on the album* were perfect, and the eleventh song, Xmas, was sometimes quite good to listen to around the month of December.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut has a way of appearing to be part museum and part advertisement at the same time.  Three-quarters of the walls around the bar have been decorated by a variety of tour posters dating as far back as the early 1990s from bands such as Pulp, Supergrass, Manic Street Preachers, and The Strokes.  The stairs leading up to the concert venue itself have been adorned with the names of many of the acts who have played at Tut’s over the years.  Meanwhile, the area of the bar nearest the entrance is a parade of posters and leaflets advertising the upcoming bands and artists who are aspiring to become the latest addition to the exhibition on the opposite walls and on the stairway.

As the bar was filling up prior to the doors to the venue opening at 8.30, I was glancing around the museum-like portion of King Tut’s, becoming increasingly convinced that I might be the youngest person in the entire room, and if not the youngest then I was certainly in the most youthful 5%.  I was beginning to perform a quick head count of my fellow gig-goers, but after a while it seemed that I would be more efficient counting the number of heads without grey hairs on them.

When I am at home and in Markie Dans it usually seems to be true that everyone around me is getting younger, but the opposite was the case at my recent experiences of attending gigs, where everyone else looked to be getting older.  I found myself scouring the scene around King Tut’s trying to spot the twenty-year-old version of myself:  the guy who fifteen years earlier was travelling to gigs in the city by himself, dressed in jeans and a checked shirt which invariably was a combination of black plus one other colour, with a dark suit jacket decorated with novelty badges bearing amusing slogans and superhero logos, although the Batman and Superman buttons were soon claimed by girls who I would never see again.  I couldn’t find the young adolescent version of myself in Tut’s, however, and if he was there he must have done a better job than I ever did of finding company at a gig.

During my brief time in Glasgow I was gradually becoming aware of a new habit I seemed to have been developing where I would use the word perfect as a prefix to ‘thank you.’  An example of this would be when I was asked how my stay was by the young man on reception at the Euro Hostel upon checking out on Friday morning.  My room in the hostel was on the ninth of nine floors and had a single bed which required to be made up from the small pile of linen sitting atop the mattress on my arrival.  The bathroom was small – so small, in fact, that it almost made my own bathroom at home seem luxurious. It was so compact that they had to plumb the wash hand basin outside the bathroom.  When asked how I enjoyed my night in the Euro Hostel, I replied:  “It was perfect, thank you.”  It wasn’t the first time I had heard myself use perfect in this way, and when I said it again in Aulay’s later that evening I couldn’t help but feel that it was a very high standard to be setting.  Where can you go after a pint of Tennent’s Lager and a £5 all you can eat breakfast in the Euro Hostel has been described as being perfect?

Over the course of a few months the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had, through means of either romance or sickness, dwindled to just a lonely heart.  I walked into Aulay’s wearing a black sleeveless v-neck sweater over a burgundy wine shirt and a navy blue tie, even though I had spent most of my day on a train rather than in the office.  Over the course of an hour or so groups of implausibly young looking people were arriving in the bar, apparently on their way to the high school leaver’s dance, which was being held next door in the Royal Hotel.  Many of the youngsters were dressed in outfits far more colourful than I had ever dared to dream of wearing, while their ID cards were forcing the bar staff to perform mental arithmetic much faster than I was capable of.  I was discussing the idea of a leaving dance across the bar with the moonlighting banker when I remarked that they never had anything like that when I was in school.  As soon as the words had left my mouth I realised that it was the perfect thing to say if I was hoping to convince someone that I was getting old.

I was still reeling from my realisation regarding my increasing age when I stuttered through the bar to the men’s bathroom, where a lone silver-haired patron was finishing up at the urinal.  I slunk over to the far side of the short steel trough and unzipped my trousers in a fashion which I hoped would not attract any attention.  Steam was barely beginning to form when a voice belonging to the only other man in the room piped up.  “£3 a pint just to pish it away.”  There was a brief pause, and in the silence I couldn’t find it within myself to dispute his understanding of the human digestive system.

“And then they expect us to wash our hands?  Fuck them!”  The silver-haired man stormed out of the bathroom in an act of rebellion against hygiene that I had become all too familiar with during my time in the bars, though I supposed that at least this man had given a reason for his uprising, even if I couldn’t be entirely sure who the they that he was referring to were.  I was staring ahead at the empty tiling before me, hoping for a Grafitti Wall that would stop people from talking to me at the urinal.

Towards the end of the night I found myself in Markie Dans, which was quieter than usual for a Friday in June.  A bar band was playing the last of its set to a floor which was slowly emptying.  Of the collection of people who were still scattered around it seemed obvious that if I wasn’t the oldest person in the bar, I was in the upper 1%.  It was an experience entirely different to the previous night, almost like the feeling you get when you have used the last sheet of kitchen towel and you know that there is still an oily pan needing to be wiped clean.  I wasn’t feeling at ease with it and left for home, where there was still a single peach left in the fruit bowl, sitting amongst a bunch of evergreen bananas.  By the end of the week the peach was just like everything else.  It had finally ripened and grown old.

Listen to The Fine Art of Self-Destruction by Jesse Malin here

*Cigarettes and Violets didn’t appear on the UK release of The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, although it features on the Spotify version.


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