Is there anything more hipster than a late night pop up art gallery-cum-rave in an old tobacco factory on the Thames? How about one that offers complimentary pancakes with your ticket?
Well, this is where I spent the evening a few Fridays ago, attending the one-night-only exhibition where my husband had a collection of his artwork on display. There was music, there was booze, there were free-flowing pancakes, and of course the stench of creativity oozing from each corner of the room.
Deep in the belly of this 200 year old building, in a lobby that looked somewhat like a sixth form common room, I met Damien, a 46 year old shoe-loving Mod from Dublin. I’d actually met him once before at a previous exhibition and he recognised me straight away, offering a firm handshake and an impressive re-call of our prior exchange from well over a year ago. A confident and charming chap, dapperly dressed in dark double denim and some leather brown loafers, it soon came back to me that he’d been interested in a Quadrophenia-style picture my husband was selling last time.
He was clearly having a ball the second time round too, because later on in the evening when we chatted again, he said,“It’s great, isn’t it?” looking around the room. “Being around all these passionate people. You’ve got to have passion, Katy. You’ve got to have something that gets you out of bed in the morning. What’s your passion, Katy?”
“I like to write, actually.”
“Really?” he says. “I write too. What sort of stuff?”
“Well, I have this blog....” I begin to say, and I tell him about the whole concept of it and the writing competition I’ve entered, and he gets very excited about the whole thing. It’s the perfect response to a somewhat reserved pitch, and before I know it, we’ve scuttled off back to the lobby where I remember seeing a tatty velvet sofa that seemed perfect for story telling.
Damien was born in Dublin in 1971 and grew up in a large family amongst six other siblings. A proud Irishman, he talks fondly of his childhood, but he tells me he wanted more than the city had to give, and this gnarly feeling of dissatisfaction brought him to London at the first opportunity - chasing the bright lights of England’s capital like countless other wondering souls over the course of time.
“People back home were so settled,” he tells me, with a slightly furrowed brow. “I had all this ambition, and life there wasn’t enough for me. I needed to get away and see what else there was.”
Within moments he’s talking about his own passion – music - which came from an aunt and uncle who lived in London in the 1960s. Through them, Damien got into Ska music and fell in love with 1960s mod culture. In London he completely immersed himself in it, going to Northern Soul and Ska nights, dancing around at gigs and frequenting late night music venues. He dressed in black tasselled loafers and Gabicci tops, and was a collector of leather jackets and brown leather shoes. He makes a point to show me the pair he’s donning tonight and I nod approvingly.
“The thing about being ‘a Mod’,” he says coolly and with some reservation. “Is that it’s so elitist. You have to look the part, dress the part and be seen in all the right places. I love 60s music and I love the clothes, but Mod culture is so exclusive, I’ve always been weary about giving myself the title.”
Damien now lives in East London and works in finance in the media and film industry. There is an itchy-footed, rebellious quality to him and the revelation that he works in finance comes as something of a surprise; it doesn’t seem to fit with everything else. When he talks, I can see that the burning flame that brought him to London in the first place - that passion and longing for something more than the everyday humdrum - hasn’t ever gone out. He goes on to explain the situation he finds himself in at the moment; frustratingly on edge of something he desperately wants to be part of; like peering in through the window of a party.
“I work with famous people all the time. Huge, successful people who are all doing such wonderful, creative things. I’ve never been in the core, you know? I wanna be in it!" he pauses for the briefest of moments. “But how do you get in?”
“People think I’m a confident guy,” he says, and I nod in agreement, because I certainly did. “I can go anywhere and work the whole room. I could go out there and talk to anybody here tonight (and there are hundreds), but it’s all a bit of an act really. I’m not a confident person. Not all the time.”
And he goes back to his original point again. “I’ve got all this ambition in me. I want to do things. I always imagined I’d get an Oscar for something I’ve made or something I’ve written. I’m 46 now - how long am I going to keep hoping for that?”
And, oh, how I can relate to this. I think about the number of books I’ve started, the opening paragraphs, first chapters. I have hundreds of notebooks that are boldly headed, “New Book Idea” and they’re all stuffed away in draws, unfinished. I tell him this and we bond for a moment over all these wasted thoughts - so many ideas, lost, because we’re worried about how to begin.
“I was in an airport recently and went to a bookshop and picked up the new Roddy Doyle. I flicked to the first page and read the first line to see how multi-million pound books are started, to see what’s so good about this one? I should be able to do this, but it just hasn’t come yet.”
Well I’ve definitely been there too, I tell him. I’ve sat down at the computer, and then got up again, to pick up all the books on my shelf that I wish I’d written - Shock of the Fall, How to Build a Girl, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, The Versions of Us, The Past, - desperately searching for a way to start. But there’s no point picking up the books that have already been written for ideas. There’s no room for Damien to be another Roddy Doyle or another Joseph O’Connor, just as much as there’s no point in me trying to be any of my literary heroes. It’s already been done. He needs to pave his own way, just as I need to pave mine.
“I feel inspired now, Katy,” he says defiantly towards the end of our conversation. “From talking to you and hearing about your blog and your competition, I feel inspired. I just need to get out there and get writing. I’m actually taking three months off now - October, November, December - and I’m writing this book (I assume he had this planned already and didn’t just decide there and then). I’m sick of hearing myself just talking about it. One way or the other, I’m getting it done. And now I’ve told you this, you’re going to have to check up on me to make sure that I do.”
I promise him that I will, on the promise that he’ll do the same with me. If I ever want someone else to aspire to be the next ‘Katy Rigg’, I’m going to need to get cracking.
And of course, we all know deep down that the best way to get anything done is to simply begin.