It’s 3.30am in Canberra, and I’ve managed the jet lag from my trip home badly. For an hour now, I’ve had this line from a song going round in my head: “Twenty-five planes this year, and it’s only July.” It’s from a favourite Everything But The Girl song and, as sleepless thoughts go, it took me on an interesting journey.
I never really had one of those teachers who, when the time comes to collect my Nobel Prize, I’ll name-check as the source of all my inspiration. At school, I found literature a chore and the schoolboy monotone readings of things like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ did little to alter my outlook.
But in 1980, at the age of 13, the first album I ever bought with my own pocket money was ‘Sound Affects’ by The Jam. It was on vinyl and, as was the way in those days, I spent as much time caressing the album sleeve and admiring its artwork as I did listening to the creative outpourings of Paul Weller and his bandmates.
On the back cover, I have no idea why, Weller included an excerpt from ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, an 1819 poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. This was heady stuff and like no poetry I’ve ever read before. I took it up with my English teacher – and remember this is in London, just three years after punk rock had forced its way out of the capital and into wider consciousness – who decided that this meant I was a de facto anarchist.
Cue three years of him wondering aloud to the class: “What our resident anarchist makes of the Montagues and Capulets?” But no matter, I had found the teachers I missed at school in Weller, Lennon, Bowie et al. In time, Weller pointed me towards Orwell – still a favourite – and to other wonderful influences such as The Beatles, Tamla Motown, The Kinks, Small Faces and others.
In 1982 he disbanded The Jam and formed The Style Council, whose debut album was an eclectic, jazz-influenced cocktail that few bands would get away with today. On one track, a re-recording of an earlier single ‘The Paris Match’, he invited Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn to take the lead vocals and it was wonderful.
“But what has all this got to do with Canberra?” I hear you ask.
I followed all of these breadcrumb trails that Weller laid, and as a result of that initial exposure, Everything But The Girl became a favourite band of mine. They too, were fond of the odd literary cross-reference, and on one track in particular, ‘One Place’, Tracey sang about the tension between wanderlust and wanting to have a place to call home: “Twenty-five planes this year, and it’s only July.”
This was not the ‘pop hit by numbers’ of today’s charts. This was Tracey agonising over the life she’d chosen and the life she wanted. Here she was, writing and playing songs and constantly touring the world, when at the same time, she wanted to stop it all, settle down and have a family with partner and bandmate Ben Watt – a decision she would later take and explain in her excellent autobiography ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’. The band has now been “on extended hiatus” since 1999.
While the lyrics to ‘One Place’ cite Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, the sleeve notes reference a more obscure book: ‘The Songlines’, Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book about a trip to Australia in which he researches Aboriginal song and its relationship with nomadic life.
And here, like my own songline, the connections forge. From Weller via Shelley to Thorn, from her to Chatwin and onward to Australia.
It’s often hard to place the source of a dream, the original inspiration for a journey, but for me, I think it started there, in that book about language beginning as song, and the world being sung into existence in Aboriginal song. Other reasons layered themselves over this idea and created the idea of Australia as a place to visit, to explore, and eventually to live in.
Insomnia can be a strange bedfellow and it’s hard to know why I awoke today with that particular song in my head, but I think it has something to do with the challenge I always have in settling back into life here when I’m fresh back from a trip to where I previously felt so at home.
And maybe there’s therapy in that same song too. Because Tracey reconciles the conflict of wanting to travel versus the need for a home in one of her simplest, yet most resolute of lyrics: “In the end, if you take care, you can be happy or unhappy anywhere.”
And she’s right of course. You just have to decide to be happy.