This story was published in the Scottish Book Trust’s Treasures short story collection in November 2013. I also read it out live and chatted about it on Janice Forsyth’s Culture Studio on BBC Radio Scotland in June 2013.
Of all the things I’ve ever lost, it’s still the one thing I miss the most … I remember the day the padded A4 envelope with the Manchester postmark landed through the letterbox. Its contents: one 6-page A4 lined letter, one cartoonish doodle of the author, a Cadbury’s Boost and … a tape. Grinning from ear to ear, I hurriedly crossed the room, opened the deck on my stereo system and slid the Sony C90 into it. Then I pressed play and waited, laughing as I noted the title of the compilation, ‘S’all Gravy’.
Opening the clear case, I lifted the inlay out and read the intricately scribed track-listing as the music played in the background. That first track was by Cold Cut and it was called ‘Atomic Moog’. It was out-of-this-world genius.It was followed by tracks by Tiger, Pulp, Hefner, Bis, The Fall, One Dove, DJ Shadow, The Doors, Yummy Fur, Ash, Kenickie, Elastica, The Chemical Brothers, Spare Snare and The Smiths. Interspersed amongst these were a few spoken word interludes, one by John Cooper Clarke which made me laugh, another was from DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ album. It was, quite simply, THE best compilation tape ever made and I played it to death at every available opportunity – so much so that I feared it might snap! It was the soundtrack to many a morning pottering around getting ready for the day ahead, many an evening getting ready to go out with friends and many a late-nighter procrastinating over an essay. It even sound-tracked the walk up to university most mornings, such was its aural brilliance. I quickly returned the gesture with a compilation entitled ‘The Difficult 2nd Album’ of which, I received plaudits for … and thus, a friendship was born.
Michael and I were each another’s musical stem cells. Just when one of us thought that they’d heard everything and that our musical knowledge was saturated, another C90 would thud through our letter boxes, its contents filled with whole, new harmonious – and sometimes discordant – worlds. We knew how to tickle each others’ funny bones as well as flex our musical muscles from 170 miles apart. A typical letter would commence with an update of The Time, The Place, and the all-important S.O.M (state of mind): example “Ninja-sharp but fluffy” or “Tip top and degenerate”, as well as this week’s ‘heroes and villains’ list. Example Heroes – Jarvis Cocker for mooning at the Brits, buy-one-get-one-free offers and Converse trainers and Villains – Tony Blair (a politician, of whom, we agreed should have been channelling his energies into reforming his garage rock band), single re-releases, designer stubble and rocket leaves in sandwiches. We would always sign off with some finely-tuned witticism or other such as “Stay safe, stay warm and remember to claim your winter heating allowance!” or “Godspeed young slayer of virtue!”
I had just sent him what I considered to be, my finest work yet, a compilation of torch songs by the likes of Billie Holiday, Bobbie Gentry, Nick Cave and Scott Walker sings Brel, and had waited the usual couple of days for a typical response and review … but no dice. One month later and he finally got back to me. He had met a girl called Helen and he had fallen in love. He sounded happy and I was pleased for him. I mean, you can’t stay cooped up in your student gaff making up compilation tapes and writing to a girl from miles away forever now can you? The letters to-and-fro became less frequent but the banter was still magnificent – until one day … nothing … and then … still nothing. It was strange but around that same time, ‘S’All Gravy: THE Best Compilation in the World’ disappeared … just vanished one day, without a trace. This was the holy cow of compilations. My musical zenith. I was gutted. It was the thing that had kick-started and cemented a long-distance friendship and now, its disappearance was the thing that represented the end of that.
Of all the things I’ve ever lost, it’s still the one thing I miss the most … and yeah, the tape was brilliant too.
Here’s a wee piece that someone wrote about it here.