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Alan, 65

March 5, 2017

 

A dingy pub in Kentish Town, on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. On the stage, a man in a Hawaiian shirt plays London Calling on the ukulele, with a brightly coloured lei draped around the microphone stand. He plays to a solitary but devoted audience of one - a man in a woolly cardigan with dream catchers hanging from his ears and from the guitar that sits beside his feet. The man is enraptured, tapping his feet in time to the music, soaking up every minute of this juxtaposed display. Later, he gets up on stage himself and introduces himself as Alan. He plays a few of his own songs - Dead Wood and Wagon Wheel – and although he's somewhat self-deprecating about his sound, he seems delighted that the audience has now doubled in size. I had the pleasure of talking to him afterwards, over his preferred tipple – a cranberry juice.

 

Alan was born in Walthamstow in the East End of London, before moving to Holborn with his parents. His mother was English and his father was Jewish, although he adds with a little bemusement, "I've got a Jewish surname, but nobody in my family ever did anything 'Jewish'. I think my dad broke away from all that -  it was never part of my life." 

 

In the seventies, Alan went from job to job, unable to settle on anything that he particularly enjoyed. He lived in bedsits in West Hampstead with his friends, where he leant to play guitar. "I was young," he said. "We were all just having fun and messing about. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Plus, I smoked a lot of dope. We all did. Everyone thinks that it makes you really creative, but it stopped me from doing anything. It was fun for a while, but in the end, it stopped being fun at all. I left all that behind me and haven't touched it since." 

 

Through a friend, he got a job as a home carer for elderly people around West Hampstead, which he did for fifteen years. He married a Spanish woman and they had a daughter, Carina, named after the Bob Dylan song. Talking about Carina, Alan's eyes light up. "She was beautiful when she was born. She had these big eyes. When you have all those drugs in labour, the babies feel it, you know. They're sleepy. But my wife had a natural birth. Carina was born wide awake," and the sheer wonder of this miracle comes flooding back as he talks. 

 

Alan hints at the fact that he and his wife had different approaches to parenting, and that things became hard between the two of them. They argued a lot and eventually divorced after seven years. When his daughter was 11, his wife moved back to Spain, which is when Carina came to live with him full time. 

 

"It was amazing when she lived with me. I loved it. It was hard though. She went to a Spanish school, and I used to have to take her on the bus. Two buses there and two buses back." He stopped working in order to care for her, and after a fire broke out below the flat they were living in, he managed to secure a bigger flat with two bedrooms in another part of West Hampstead through the council. 

 

His pride for his daughter radiates out of him like a sunbeam. "She did everything herself. College, university, everything. I went to see her graduate. I was right up at the front taking photographs."

 

Now 32, his daughter works in The Canary Islands as a holiday rep, so he sees her once a year when she comes home in the winter. "I write a song for her every year. One of them is called 'Woman of the World'," he says. "She's travelled all over, but to me she's still my baby. She's got the same little round face she had when she was 16. She’s beautiful."

 

Now retired, Alan is a man of leisure. His day starts with tai chi and a healthy breakfast. He likes to chop up apples for the birds before going for a walk around Hampstead Heath and scouring the charity shops for CDs, books and anything vaguely Native American, which he admits is his favourite past time. A self-proclaimed hippie, vegetarian and spiritualist, he talks passionately about the value of a healthy mind and body, and tells me that for a few years, he ran meditation classes for the mental health charity, Mind. It seems that there is no end to this man's loveliness. He spends his weekends watching live music, and when the occasion arises, he plays at open mic sessions too. 

 

I ask him when he's at his happiest. He thinks for a moment and gives the obvious answer of relaxing with a book or watching a good film. Then something changes on his face, and as he runs his fingers through his wiry, grey hair, it dawns on him that his happiest moments have been and gone.

 

"I met this American woman called Edie at an open mic night,” he says. “She was about ten years younger than me, beautiful, with long hair to her waist. She was an amazing fiddle player, really talented. I fell for her right there."

 

They shared a brief romance before she headed back to LA, and somehow (though he doesn’t know how), he managed to save up the money to go and visit her. They spent three weeks together, gigging around LA, where he acted as her roadie, and taking a trip out to the desert. "The desert!" he repeats. "I'd never been anywhere like the desert before!" 

 

When he returned to the UK, it all ended. With such a long distance between them, they couldn't keep the relationship going. "It gradually phased out,” he says with a sad shake of his head. “I wrote her letters and Christmas cards, but she sent them all back to me. I don't know why." 

 

This was six years ago, but the heartache is still etched upon his face as he talks about her. "I sometimes wish I'd never met her, you know. But then I take it back. Those three weeks were the happiest in my life."

 

I empathise with him on this. For who hasn’t been bewitched, and had their heart broken, by someone like Edie? The inevitable heartache is a trade-off for the thrill of all that romance and excitement, no matter how brief.  

 

As we leave, Alan gives me a copy of his latest CD. I take it home and read the track list: Psychopathic Romantics, Over You, Hand and Heart and Down on His Luck and I wonder how many of these were inspired by Edie.   

 

I might be slightly biased now, but I can’t help but think she let a good one get away. 

 

 

 

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