A Longing Look
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A Longing Look

I’ll take you to the verges

A love letter to the lyrics of Flytipping by Suede

A railway runs past the end of my road. If you jump on the train and head north, behind the back of the city’s houses and over viaducts, past the Avon Gorge, through tunnels and under the motorway, you end up way past the outskirts of Bristol at a place called Severn Beach.

Severn Beach’s days as a seaside resort are long gone. The boating lake was filled in years ago. The train station is just a platform now, unstaffed, as if one day the visitors just stopped coming. People still live here; the old station building was cleared to make way for new housing, which was boxy and uninspiring immediately and now looks tired too. It seems to hunker down for warmth and shelter in the shadow of the sea wall that keeps at bay the mud and inky rippling sprawl of the Severn and its cold estuary air.

The sea wall itself is a path, a marsh-side promenade. Standing on it, with Wales just visible ahead of you, miles away and murky, you see to your right the enormous concrete curve of the Severn Bridge. You can’t not hear the incessant airborne rumble of its M4 cargo. The motorway dominates the village but it’s miles to any slip road. People here are denied easy access yet subject to its bulk and noise, forced to watch the world travelling past, on its way to somewhere else.

Turn left on the sea wall, and look south, down the estuary coast — a thin strip of land, estuary mud on one side, and on the other a skyline of chimneys, wind turbines, factories, recycling centres and logistics depots. A hinterland of forgotten industry. Behind the buildings lie long stretches of road, perfect for lorries making their way around the area, and for joyriding, and car racing and handbrake turns.

A post-industrial pall clings to Severn Beach. Its surfaces and angles seem cloaked in dishwater grey. It is bleak — on a bad day you might even call it desolate. To live here, you imagine, is to learn to ignore what’s there and to not miss what isn’t. Life might become something you decide happens elsewhere. The place feels forgotten, marginal. The edge of the world. A destination that isn’t. You wonder how people pass the time here. What proclivities take hold, what connections are made. It feels brutal, and sad.

It feels like a very Suede kind of place.

We’ll play on the road
Flytipping, careful as you go
And we’ll watch as the lorries
Transport their precious loads

I spent my formative years listening to Suede. Twenty-five years later, reading Coal Black Mornings, Brett Anderson’s tender, absorbing, quietly thrilling memoir of the time before I or anyone else knew who Suede were, I realise how wrong I got them. I thought Suede were about escape. About the scuzzy allure of a life you chose over the drab trajectory you’d been born into. About an ambiguous, salacious perspective on sexuality, desire and drugs. And they were about all those things, just not only that.

What I missed back then, and what seems so obvious once the memoir has plunged you back into the realm of those first two albums and of Brett Anderson’s upbringing, is that the ambiguity wasn’t really about sex or gender at all. It was the complicated connection he had with the places that made him.

In his lyrics, Anderson’s portrayal of the world he knew is more tender than angry. He wants to commemorate it, honour it even — help the rest of us look more closely at lives we might otherwise ignore. He wants us to see the squalor, the sadness, the failure and regret in these places, because it’s what he saw and felt growing up. He is interested in showing us people’s responses, their tastes, their animal urges. His songs are full of the hope of human connection, not just its absence.

In its first few lines, Flytipping — not from those early records but from one that came out only last year — makes its romantic intent very clear: a promise, a lover’s pledge, transfixed by the beauty of things the rest of us ignore — “we’ll play on the roads…we’ll watch as the lorries transport their precious loads…” So very Suede. I hear those lines and think of Severn Beach, of youthful Suede protagonists who might live there, running with the dogs along the estuary mud, or looking longingly at the road that winds its way to London, shoulders hunched against the cold, hopeful and happy against the odds. I see the textures of Suede’s landscape in the surfaces at Severn Beach, too: brutal angles and soft verges and lives taken for granted. Theirs is a world of skyscrapers and “nuclear skies” and motorways, of street riots and sleeping pills, car engines left running, roundabouts and escalators. By the estuary, it’s the scrubland, the noise, the cramped estate, the transience — it all coheres. It’s more than the negative space left by logistics and infrastructure and progress; it’s a canvas to be filled with poetry, pathos and love.

With a bag in our hands
Flytipping, me and my patient man
Just by the hard shoulder
This few who’ve understood

Anderson always played with pronouns. It was usually an exercise in empathy: ‘he’ simply meant he was writing as a woman. An early B-side, My Insatiable One, was written about himself in the third person, from the perspective of his ex-girlfriend. In Flytipping he writes as “me and my patient man” and transforms the illegal depositing of waste from something ugly and selfish to an act that seems ineffably romantic; no longer an everyday act of carelessness, of thoughtlessness, but a daring, anti-consumerist romance. Not a blight, but the sound of people letting go of what they don’t need anymore. Which, when you don’t have very much, is a very complicated form of liberation.

What is my name, what is yours?
Do we own these things, what has it all been for?
Flytipping on the road of course
Shiny things that turn into rust
So we show ourselves with all this pretty stuff
Flytipping feels like just enough

In his book, Anderson writes of a childhood home where everything was recycled or home-made. Perhaps it’s not surprising he wants us to see we are so much more than what we own. It leaves you thinking about how much of our identity is caught up in our possessions. His Flytipping couple seem to realise they need only possess, and be possessed by, each other. Freed from the tyranny of ownership, they are able to travel, to roam, to live their lives. To play in the road, like innocents. To look at that motorway and dream. He’s a benign serpent, enacting the garden of eden in reverse, looking down on them from the tree of knowledge.

Under the trees
Two hunters looking for ivory
Discard their possessions
Cast them to the breeze

He helps them — and us — see the place to which they belong with new eyes. With this story, almost thirty years into his writing life, Anderson is still seeing poetry in the drab, in the debris. The beauty at the edges. And in the process still fashioning the most Brett Anderson lines you could imagine:

And I’ll take you to the verges
By the nettles, by the roundabout
And I’ll pick you wild roses
In the tunnels like the underpass

And I’ll take you to the Fir trees
As the paper drifts like falling snow

Whatever these places are, these forgotten, marginal places, however grim, or full of dread and danger, however much they are the opposite of bucolic — they remain full of wonder. The heroes of Flytipping know this place belongs to them and they belong to it. That is their power. It’s what drives Anderson’s skill as a writer. He’s looking with love, and so that’s what he sees.

Suede’s new album is called The Blue Hour — named for that deep royal shade of dusk, when night tucks itself in at the corners, enveloping where you stand, the sky resisting the fading of another day and any promise it may have held. It’s a perfect title: a sparkling, still life backdrop for human-scale heroics. The titles alone make it clear ‘the love and poison of London’ is far behind. This is suburbia, or perhaps further out; the titles bottle that strange menace you only really find in the countryside: Wastelands, Beyond The Outskirts, The Invisibles, Roadkill, Tides, All The Wild Places.

Anderson is reaching for, as perhaps he always did, a Pet Shop Boys-like majesty. Tennant’s lyric for Suburbia show an early 80s Brixton about to boil over, what happens when a community is left to rot. He invited us to “take a ride with the dogs tonight” — a line Anderson stole almost whole for The Wild Ones — and see the kids “stood by the bus stop, with a felt pen”, who “only wanted something else to do but hang around.” Suede did their own riot song (We Are The Pigs) and glamorised the kids caught up in it — “we are the stars of the firing line.” They found heroics in squalor, championing the forgotten, the dispossessed, the ones hanging on. They make stars of ordinary people, a stage of the mundane. They fashion an England not of dreaming spires but of concrete and wire. They take us to the verges. They help us not only look, but see.

If you liked this, you might also like the love letter to Rent by the Pet Shop Boys.

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James Caig

One half of A Longing Look, a music publication on Medium. Writer, consultant, strategist, facilitator.