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Sitting in the Shadows of Giants

Simon Warner

Lessons learned from a squash club spanking and visit to Maggie's flat help an intrepid journalist stand tall and be intimidated no more.

Was it Sir Isaac Newton who spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants? Perhaps I am thinking of Oasis whose 2000 album Standing on the Shoulder of Giants misquoted the great scientist's reflection on the heritage of the past (to which he partly owed his own discoveries). Whatever. Recent weeks had me feeling as if I was about to wither in the shadow of one or two giants, an incomparable rock'n'roll journalist and a revered new wave legend. And it left me recalling various slips the banana peel of life had dealt me in the past.

Quite a number of years ago I attended the wedding of a university friend, not long after we'd graduated from college. A group of us headed down to the English Midlands to attend Bob's ceremony and the usual banter of 20-odd year olds ensued -- promises to re-live the unfettered pleasures of student life for one more weekend even though we had settled into regular jobs. Here was a chance to break open the bottles again and drink to that golden age when getting up (at least anytime before midday) had no place on life's agenda.

Such intentions always seem more thrilling in the imagination. The details of the special occasion escape me but the post-nuptial partying was a modest and restrained affair. Roistering, however good-natured, among the maiden aunts and scurrying toddlers in a family home doesn't have the same appeal as knocking them back in the local pub with the jukebox blaring its gloriously raucous soundtrack.

As I quietly sipped a second beer, I got to chatting with a neighbour of the groom; he was a bit older but had some interesting thoughts on literature. Before long he'd taken me next door and we were examining his book shelves, stacked high and wide with volumes I either knew or wanted to get to know. We then got talking about sport and discovered we each had an interest in squash.

"Why don't we have a game tomorrow morning?" my new associate asked. "I've got a court booked and the partner I was playing has had to drop out." I hadn't actually planned to hit the sporting trail so soon the following dawn, but as the social fireworks had plainly failed to fire at the wedding, I decided to take up the 10am gauntlet. Although I was a relative novice at the game — I'd played for a year, perhaps — I accepted the test with the optimism and bravado only youth can foster. After all, this fellow was at least a decade my senior and had remarked that he'd "played a bit"; how tough could he be?

Sunday came and he and I took a short ride to the squash club. I assumed it was the last few moments before an exhilarating workout; in fact it was preface to an execution. My new found friend proved to be a more than formidable enemy. In 40 merciless minutes he must have beaten me four or five times; 9-0, a mauling by any standards. His service was high, long, looping, perfectly placed and quite simply unplayable. I crawled from the court, beaten, battered and bruised. I had been truly squashed.

"So, you said you'd played a bit," I managed to wheeze through a haze of physical and mental deflation, a crumpled and demoralised parody of the bright and breezy athlete who'd strode onto the court an hour before. "Well, yes. Perhaps I should have said but I didn't want to brag," he replied, somewhat sheepishly. "I'm a county player for Northamptonshire."

Life has this ability to bowl us a googly as cricketing Anglos would say, a knuckleball I suppose (in baseball parlance) and sometimes you just can't get your bat within a foot of connecting. And it only took a year or so after my squash court humiliation to experience a little disaster that almost knocked my carriage completely from the tracks. In this instance it wasn't just personal pride at stake, but professional credibility.

It was 1980 and I was awarded a special prize as a young journalist by the English Speaking Union. For reasons that now escape me, the ESU was in a position to secure access for a single British and American newspaper writer to the British Prime Minister, one Margaret Thatcher, with the prospect of a 20-minute chat in 10 Downing Street itself. My editor could not have been happier. He bulled up the occasion with huge enthusiasm, giving me a list of questions to put to the PM, seeking direct responses to the precarious future of the local steel industry and so on and so forth. He saw the opportunity as an exclusive chance to make a headline splash as any newsman with a commercial eye would do.

When I travelled to London for what was a hugely exciting visit, things seemed fine and dandy. The UK's weekly periodical for journalists Press Gazette carried the story that a rising reporter would be in that rare position to grill the individual at the very centre of British government; (At that time Thatcher was the most talked about and quite possibly the most controversial politician in the world, as she was the first woman to hold power in a major state).

I met up with my American counterpart, and after a somewhat nervous coffee, we headed for Downing Street. A much easier thoroughfare to wander then, you could actually walk to a point just down from the door of the PM's home; (today, in more security conscious times, a metal gate keeps all and sundry at least 50 yards from the entrance). But to walk to that hallowed address was an utter thrill and rare privilege, literally following in the footsteps of every great politician of the last century. Alas, this glow couldn't last. After climbing a long and elegant staircase, while gazing at portraits of every past prime minister, we met the Downing Street press secretary who, pointing to the Press Gazette story, informed us that the interview with the PM would be a closed one. Nothing we said to each other could be reported. Deflated but far too reticent to debate this point, I entered Thatcher's private rooms, and the three of us proceeded to share some gentle small talk. Her son Mark had recently gone missing while on a car rally in Africa and most of our time together floated around that topic. After our all-to-brief meeting, I said my goodbyes then made a point of hurriedly noting all we had said to each other…just in case, just in case…

The next day I explained the conundrum to my editor. "It was all off the record," I gulped. He was sitting with his collection of already published stories that promised the premier's responses on a range of subjects - the state of our schools, the cost of local government, the axe hanging over our heavy industries… But realizing he had no actual answers to offer, he was crest-fallen, anxious and red-faced. He might as well have been on the losing end of my squash hammering not that long before.

To be fair, it kind of got sorted. Our local Member of Parliament, who was a real Thatcher loyalist, managed to get clearance for all we said to be reported, and in the next edition the Our journalist meets Mrs. Thatcher ran even though the text was a little heavy on maternal meanderings about a missing son (he turned up, by the way) rather than the fate of the city's steelworks.

These two incidents came to my mind when I discovered my place in the programme for the large popular music conference which Seattle hosts each year in April. It is held at the splendid Experience Music Project, where rock'n'roll is celebrated historically, technologically and culturally. A late afternoon spot on a presenting panel seemed fine enough until I discovered the quality of the opposition on the parallel session. If you were to ask say, 20 Americans of a certain age who was the USA's premier rock writer, I expect three quarters would propose the name of Greil Marcus, a fixture at Rolling Stone for many years and now the freelance doyen of commentators on matters musical. Marcus was to be joined by David Thomas (the larger than life, one-time singer with new wave legends Pere Ubu) and another important name on this circuit, Ann Powers, whose book Bohemian Like Me deservedly left its mark a year or three ago.

They might just as well have added Bob Dylan to the talent in the rival room. After all, EMP is currently staging a major exhibition celebrating the Zim, so why not really weight things against yours truly with the greatest living American rock'n'roller joining the crowd down the corridor? I felt a little like a freshly-hatched minnow in the newly unveiled palace aquarium.

How did things turn out? Well, as I've found quite often, life's potential pitfalls don't always turn out quite so badly. We did have a crowd, a small but interested one, and my presentation on Genesis P-Orridge (the one-time Throbbing Gristle frontman, who's currently undergoing gender reassignment) went down pretty well. Even Ann Powers, whose paper had not remained in the schedule, turned up.

So even in the shadows of giants, whether you lose on the squash court, tangle toothlessly with the Iron Lady, or get caught in the slipstream of one of America's justifiably honoured scribes, the sun just might glint through. I'll think of that when the next ordeal visits to test my state-of-the-art inferiority complex.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

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