The 2013 Advent Calender: For the 25 days of Christmas, I will be blogging each day about a miscellaneous thing I love. Not necessarily a big thing, not necessarily a small thing and not in any order.
The first day of university is a pretty headstrong mix of fear and excitement. Once you’ve waved the parents off, there is no longer anything standing in the way of you presenting your ideal self, completely unconnected to the awkwardnesses of the last seven years. Awesome future Matt, ready to go.
‘Course, then you have to actually do it, which is pretty intimidating. You start off in the small pool, with the shallow water: the few people in your flat. That’s not too traumaitc. Then you get hauled by some hyperactive girls (the kind you’d never have dared speak to in school) around every single flat in your block, introducing you at every door. That’s okay; your toes can still touch the bottom if you bob. Then later, there’s the deep end. You’re in someone else’s student kitchen. It looks exactly the same as yours, but it isn’t. You’re drinking. People are getting to know each other. Somehow, the circle of conversation–mostly girls, do they talk to me now?–becomes about where their respective boyfriends (relationships doomed to failure within a month) have gone to university.
It gets to me: “Mine’s in Lincoln,” I say, which has the double effect of outing me. Thank god for that. Hurdle out of the way. Hayley, a girl I have been talking for over an hour, grabs me by the lapels. “You’re gay!” she screeches. “Thank god! I’m a lesbian! I’ve been looking for more gays all night!” (She isn’t a lesbian anymore. She quit after graduation.)
“Mine lives in London,” says an unassuming guy hovering on the edges. He’s wearing a Muse hoody, and supping beer from a can. He seemed shy.
Bollocks to that.
Let me introduce Mr Chris Black. He is not shy in any way. He’s the person you rely on at a party to accost people he doesn’t know to begin drinking games. In my second year, he appeared at my shoulder to ask the fresher I was chatting up to improvise a scene from Eastenders (the fresher was a drama student.) Most people, within the first twenty minutes of meeting him, leave with a basic understanding of his masturbation habits.
He turned out to be on the same course as me–Creative Writing–which meant that for the next three years I had someone with prodigiously more talent at both writing and, as it turned out, music, to be envious of. Somewhere in the first year we formed a band (if two people can be called a band) and played one gig in thirty six months. On a lecture morning my flatmate Mark and I would knock on his ground floor flat door. He would answer, generally in his pants and sporting an inquisitive erection, his face screwed up in stunned semi-wakefulness, an expression that became known as ‘mole-face’. He would vanish into the depths of his (awful, smoke-filled, takeaway-littered) flat and then emerge two minutes later fresh-faced and dazzling cheerful.
Being within four doors of someone else of ‘the gay persuasion’ meant that it wasn’t quite as necessary to throw ourselves into the LGBT society just to grasp a lifeline. We’d breeze in and out whenever we felt like it, which–I’ve discovered in later years–granted us the status of ‘probably-seeing-each-other’ and ‘visiting distraction’. It was a staple rite-of-passage for most LGBT members to have a crush on Chris.
Sadly for many a delicate gay heart, he wasn’t interested in any of them.
In the first week of our meeting, we had ventured out onto campus to explore the new kingdom before us (translation: buy pasta from the corner shop). This was in the early stages of figuring out people–you were doing it with everyone you met–and the narrow window at the start of the new year where talking to strangers apropos of nothing was totally acceptable.
We’d covered topics of mutual interest, which naturally included the male gender. “He’s hot,” Chris announced. I turned to look, but whoever he was talking about had vanished.
We continued on, up the single street that passed for DMU’s whole student village. “He’s hot as well,” he said. I turned to look again, but I’m obviously too slow at this, as whoever he is pointing out has vanished again, possibly behind the fat man turning the corner.
This cycle repeated a couple of times before I fully grasped that it was, in fact, the fat man he was referring to. Y’see, folks, Chris is what is known in t’community as a ‘chubby chaser’.
It’s actually pretty refreshing to come across in gay-land: someone not obsessed with the stick thin perfection as defined by your average shallow queens. Without encountering this I probably wouldn’t either be a) as comfortable with my own body image or b) as comfortable about liking the heavier-set guy myself. Chris was, and is, always open about it. Our future female housemates were given an explicit crash course in chubby sex, listening open mouthed in a cavernous booth of the first year hotspot in Zanzibar (it was closed by August.) He wrote and recorded a dance track explaining the intricacies of his particular type, following on from a hair-raising experience in the London club XXL that neither of us were prepared for.
An hour or so after our first meeting a few paragraphs back, Chris popped upstairs with the flatmate on the other side of the wall to my room. He was large, booming and apparently straight.
He wasn’t. One day into university life! It must have been like all of Chris’ Christmas’s coming at once.
At the end of the first term, we waited a week after everyone else had left, and spent it watching horror films and recording music. He’d bought a hideously expensive microphone that looked like a whisk with which we recorded a cover version of MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This, turning it into a medieval madrigal about domestic abuse. I was introduced to The Eye, a terrifying Japanese horror film, made all the worse by the eerily empty student halls. In its scariest scene the heroine is in a lift, where the ghost materialises, stood facing the corner. I spent forty five minutes with my eye pressed to the fish-eye in Chris’ flat door, waiting for the tiny upside-down version of him to come out of his room (where he was probably masturbating). The second I saw him, I ran to the lift, closed the doors and stood facing the corner, waiting for him to call it.
It wasn’t the only time the lift doors opened to a shock. Chris awoke unseasonably early one morning, heading off mine and Mark’s usual ritual. He waited opposite the doors as we descended to awaken him, bent over, slapping his arse, and grinning over his shoulder like a geriatric pervert. Perfectly prepared for our arrival.
We were still waiting upstairs for the lift. Downstairs, the doors opened to a tiny Asian girl, clutching her books in shock.
Aside from the shut-in recording week, we also excursioned to London where we were within touching distance of Mika (before he was famous) and hugged Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling. Aside from his other eccentricities, Chris has a bizarre ability to remain friends with exes (possibly because they were usually a decade older) and at one time or another I’ve slept on the sofa of pretty much the full roster. On this occasion we were in the block of flats in which 28 Days Later was filmed, and my bed was also the sofa on which the ex’s rent-boy room-mate sat until 3am watching documentaries about bridges. Later that year we attended the second year of Latitude Festival, and it was where we discovered the twin genuises of Patrick Wolf (accidentally coming across him on a small stage) and The Irrepressibles (mimes playing cellos that you would stumble across playing solitary odes in the woods). Plus, the sheep were dyed a range of pinks, greens and blues, and you can’t argue with that.
Living in closer quarters, in our student house of six people, meant that everyone–including the three cheerleaders we lived with–became quickly and explicitly educated in the subjects of his porn habits (he likes to take it slowly, loading up tab after tab–it’s all about the anticipation) and the regularity of his erections (pretty much all the time). But lest you picture this curious creature as nothing but an over-sharing sex-pest without personal boundaries, I would like to remind us that if literary fiction has taught us nothing then it is that a man can be both a sex-pest and a poet.
In seriousness: his extrovert nature is matched by an underbelly of serious emotional heft. In the two Upperton Road years we wrote a sheaf of songs together (three lines by me, the rest of the song and the key change by him) and his lyrical ability was honed to give voice to the tangle of romantic travails, one-sided or heartbreaking. Occasionally his musical ability may have sometime outweighed the normal eloquence of speech. Like, say, bursting into wordless tears in the Student Union after too many snakebite and black, wordlessly attempting to articulate the frustation of the hot-and-cold cocktease barman (a staple of the university narrative.) This is the brand of drama you look back on and think ‘ah… youth’ but at the time it was as richly and heart-wrenchingly involving as can ever be imagined.
While the rest of us existed on the bounty of Iceland (it’s not just for mums), Chris had bought a cookbook for survival at university which he worked through steadily. He refused to skip ahead, and so in two years he learned every possible permutation of potato there was, and had just moved on to eggs by May 2009. This valuable education aside, we were also on the Creative Writing course being drafted into exercises designed to enhance our style. Chris’ poetic ‘voice’ can be summed up concisely: a pastoral image enlivened by the malappropriation of a coarse noun as a verb form.
Sound a bit complex? Try an example: ‘he wandered lonely as a cloud, the raindrops twatting the pavement,’ later published in his collection ‘Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Fuck?’
You can extrapolate the whole thing to sum up Chris really: emotional wisdom, locked within a wank joke. His favourite quote is “Ooh, what a lovely pair,” from a Carry On film. Before joining the course, he wrote a story about a policewoman named Janice, in possession of voluminous knockers, a sexually promiscuous dog named Plymouth and the hitherto unmentioned ability to summon Pokemon in the final battle. On the flip-side, his final dissertation story was a spine-tingling story of dreams, madness and loneliness that remains one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Although it did still feature somewhere called Club Clunge.
Of course, don’t let the skew of this article suggest that we each other’s only acquaintance; for a start, there were plenty of others in the house (Mark, who was on our Creative Writing course with us, who I’ve barely mentioned, and _______, the cheerleader who got so slutty she had to sleep in my bed to stop her bonking rugby players) and Chris managed to be involved in an impressive catalogue of social groups and gatherings–he wasn’t exactly one to avoid a reason for drinking or going out. But with a distance now of more years than I was actually at university (bloody hell…), I would define him as a best friend of the highest calibre. When university was nearly over we toured the city, photographing old landmarks, including our old student doors. He recreated his arse-smacking pose for the camera, three years on. That’s pretty much what university was: three years of learning to be your own person, figuring out friendships, love, heartbreak, and standing on your own feet, but not in a weight Dickensian way: it’s all buried deep in a story full of alcohol, sex, fights, dancing, video games, cheap food, hungover lectures and stupid, stupid ideas. In that fire, great friendships flourish. Chris was the complex mixture of a figure that I might sometime nauseatingly wished I could emulate, and a person for whom I frequently saw past the party-boy mask of ‘Christabel’ (as I referred to it, though he really really hated the name) to under-running currents of emotion that we could connect and bond over. It felt, to me, as if the shorthand we that served us writing partners (over four long nights producing Between The Lines, our third year publication), translated to everything else as well. And if (for me at least) university was the first place I ever felt completely myself, then it was like these were the first friends I’d ever really had.
Nothing’s straightforward, of course. The second year of university brought on a thorny segment of our friendship that arose almost completely from my trouble with the mangled weight of responsibility I was totally unprepared for. The benefit of writing in hindsight is I can omit that from the story.
There are a wealth of anecdotes that aren’t in this story, and I have a fleeting concern that the portrait I have conjured is a bit more sex-pest than poet. Nonetheless, that’s Chris for you. This post contains no images of him because I would far rather that those who have never seen him invent some absurd image instead.
I hesitate to call this post a tribute, as some might argue it’s more in the vein of slander. I hope he never pursues a political career. But I’m very thankful to still consider Chris a close friend, and to note that, as of writing this post, he is still the kind of person who only considers it Christmas when xtube and porntube have updated their logos to include a Santa hat.
P.S. remember the jolly straight bloke through the wall? Chris wrote a song about him, which is a surprisingly beautiful one given that it was a few fleeting encounters that left him with a broken heart and chlamydia. We recorded a version three years after the fact, which was never entirely completed, and has never been heard. It’s called Crash Test Dummy. Here it is: