Read an excerpt from “Wivenhoe Park”: An Anglophile immersed in the 80s English indie/goth scene

By on June 8, 2015

From the first pages of Wivenhoe Park, we’re inside the head of a twenty-something Angolophile named Drew, a pill popping, dope smoking, heavy drinking, music-obsessed student with journalistic aspirations. He’s just moved to England on a whim, to escape the bad relationships he’s got back home in the States — a girl he can’t quite shake, a drug-dealing best friend spinning out of control, and a yuppie Midwestern family who don’t approve of his lifestyle.

Drew’s interior monologue style doesn’t stray too far from the oft-tread and traditional Bildungsroman coming-of-age tale — here it’s being presented through the eyes of a long-distance runner (who doesn’t really identify with other athletes, it seems) who hails from Michigan and has already spent some time in college, but soon after the novel begins he’s decided to spend a year abroad, taking classes at the University of Essex in Colchester.

He gravitates towards the people he feels the most comfortable with, the ones who wear the same kinds of t-shirts he does, emblazoned with the logos of their favorite bands — music is the most important thing in Drew’s life — and he takes note of what everyone is listening to. Drew arrives in Essex at the ascent of a new indie music scene, one that includes The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream,  Echo & The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, That Petrol Emotion, Modern English, and The Cure.  He befriends a trendy James Dean look alike from Manchester, a star Melody Maker journalist, a smooth American mod from New York City, and several enticing British girls.

What the author Ben Vendetta focuses on here is what happens outside of the classrooms, and away from the campus. In fact, very little studying takes place as all of the students seem to be flush with grant money and more interested in drinking in the pubs, flirting with doe-eyed Brit girls at parties, and going to concerts in a variety of venues, sometimes to see his very favorite bands who haven’t yet made it over to the States to tour.

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Ben Vendetta

Wivenhoe Park (Cooperative Trade, 2013) is Ben Vendetta’s first novel, but he’s been writing — mostly about rock ‘n’ roll — for his entire adult life for a number of publications, including The Big Takeover and Skyscraper. He published Vendetta Magazine from 1995 to 2002 and was the director of publicity at Dionysus Records before co-founding independent record label, Elephant Stone Records, with his wife Arabella Proffer-Vendetta.

Ben has graciously provided us with an excerpt:

MEAT PIES AND CHIP BUTTIES

I wake up to an announcement that we’ll be arriving in London soon. I’m nauseous from the drinks and Valium, but the adrenaline is surging. I’m really here! The plane lands and I navigate my way through customs with the Thompson Twins, saying goodbye after picking up my suitcase. I’m on my own now and need to take the subway (I soon learn everyone calls it the Tube) to Liverpool Street Station before catching another train to Colchester.

The first portion of the trip reminds me of an underground airport train I took with my family in Munich one summer when I was fourteen. Some of my best memories are from train rides. My dad and I were never that close, but one of my earliest remembrances is taking a trip with him and Paul from Vienna to Innsbruck when I was just four. We had lived in Austria for a year while my dad was on a sabbatical. I laugh out loud, remembering a picture in my mom’s photo album of Paul and I wearing school uniforms consisting of shorts, shirts, ties, and blazers, looking very much like miniature versions of Angus and Malcolm Young from AC/DC.

After leaving the airport, the train goes above ground and the scenery becomes totally alien to anything I’ve seen. The houses, pubs, newsagents, and shops look almost too quaint to be real. I half expect this to be a movie set that will get torn down as soon as we go past. I wonder if Mary Poppins will fly by to let me know I’m still dreaming. I smile at that thought, remembering a time PJ and I did mushrooms on a weekend trip at a friend’s cabin and thought that donkeys from a neighboring farm were trying to talk to us. The Tube goes back underground closer to the city and I get off at Liverpool Street, manage to find the correct train on a confusing electronic arrivals/departures board and hustle when I realize I don’t have much time to spare.

Even though I’m exhausted, I’m way too excited to sleep. Leaving London, the train navigates its way past an endless succession of commuter belt towns and villages. The highlights are pretty minimal, the outposts being the English equivalents of the American middle class suburban dream, though I do note that Romford has a greyhound track, something I’ve never seen before. I watch the towns roll by (this must be what Morrissey meant by humdrum towns) while I zone out to New Order’s latest album, Low-Life, on my Walkman; Stratford, Romford, Shenfield, Chelmsford, Hatfield Peverel, Witham, Kelvedon, Marks Tey, and, finally, Colchester.

New Order was always the soundtrack of choice when I borrowed my dad’s car and the band’s sweeping atmospheric amalgamation of dance beats, shards of noisy guitar, and spooky bass lines proves to be an equally delectable tonic for this journey. From Colchester I take a cab to the university and am disappointed to discover that the ride takes us around the town instead of through the city center. Colchester is the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain. I remember that from a history class I had on the Roman Empire freshman year. The ruins will have to wait for another time.

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The University of Essex looks exactly like the photos in the brochure that came with my letter of acceptance. It was built in 1963 and the buildings have a cold, almost Stalinist feel. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Essex was a hotbed for student unrest in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The architecture alone justifies armed retaliation. The surrounding greenery, however, makes up for it. The campus is situated on a picturesque hilly property called Wivenhoe Park, the subject of a famous nineteenth century painting by renowned landscape artist John Constable. Cows no longer wander freely on the countryside like they do in the painting, but the pond is still there, and swans, like the ones depicted in Constable’s piece, are frequent visitors. I’ve been assigned a room in Eddington Tower, on the south side of the university campus, just a short walk up a small hill from the main university square. It’s Wednesday and classes won’t start until the following week, but a lot of students are already here. Tomorrow, I’ll have to suffer through an orientation with the other Americans.

My general impression of the students I see milling about campus is that they’re trendier than Americans. The guys are all wearing cardigans or vintage looking blazers, as if they were extras in a Smiths video. A lot of the girls have dyed hair (blonde, black, red, even pink and purple) and wear leggings and skirts. Polo nation this is not. I can hear a few American voices and my first instinct is to say hello to fellow travelers before I remind myself that the whole point of this trip is to get away from that shit. I hope that everyone who looks at me assumes I’m English. My room is on the fifth floor of Eddington, a fourteen-story tower that from the outside looks more like a housing project than a dormitory. Not Cabrini Green bad, but certainly not The Ritz. The layout inside is generic, too. There are sixteen single bedrooms on my floor, eight on each side, sandwiched by a common room and kitchen. My room is slightly larger than your stereotypical Japanese hotel room, with just enough space for a desk, a few shelves, and a bed that’s about as comfortable as a motel cot.

It’s lunchtime, at least my body clock is telling me that, so I decide to venture out and find a bite to eat. I’m too lazy to shower, but I wash my face, change shirts, and apply a new layer of deodorant. The old French spit and shine. I opt for an Echo and The Bunnymen t-shirt with the cartoon logo of the warped looking bunny creature that graced the covers of the “Pictures on My Wall” and “Rescue” singles. I stick with my black leather jacket and put on shades even though it’s cloudy outside.

In the common space there are two guys talking and smoking cigarettes. One of them has his hair styled back into a glamorous pompadour like James Dean, with equally impressive sideburns. He’s wearing a black cardigan over a crisp white thrift store dress shirt and a pair of cuffed jeans. His friend is dressed entirely in black and has spiky bleached blonde hair like Billy Duffy from The Cult. They look up and James Dean says, “Alright mate?”

“Hi, how’s it going?”

“American, eh,” says James Dean. “Nice t-shirt by the way.”

“Thanks. I’m Drew. I just moved down the hall into room six.”

“I’m Dave. I live in room two and this is Simon,” he says, pointing to his goth pal.

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I ask if there’s a good place to eat and Dave says they’re about to get a pint at the Union Bar and invites me to join them. The Union Bar is a large wide open space, more reminiscent of a moose lodge or a VFW hall than a proper pub, but the pints are super cheap, fifty to sixty pence a pop (less than a dollar). The food menu trips me up and Dave and Simon burst out laughing as they try to explain the intricacies of a Ploughman’s, Shepherd’s Pie, and a Cornish Pasty. I opt for the Shepherd’s Pie, which is more or less ground beef, potato, and a few veggies backed into a pie crust.

I knock back a few pints of John Smith’s bitter, which goes down smooth (extra smooth according to the beer mat I place my glass on in between sips). It’s amazing how much better the beer is here compared to the Budweiser, Heineken, and Stroh’s I usually drink at home. I learn that Dave and Simon are part of the Entertainment Society at Essex and they help book bands to play at the campus venue. They have already planned road trips to see The Cult in Ipswich in a few weeks and The Jesus and Mary Chain in Norwich in November.

I commend myself for falling into the right crowd so fast and easily. I tell them about some of the bands I’ve seen and about some of the writing I’ve done. Dave tells me that he knows someone at Melody Maker and asks if I have any clips I can give pass on to him. This trip is turning out to be too good to be true. Simon says he wants to see my Sisters of Mercy article.

“They played at Essex last autumn,” he says. “Just before they broke up.”

“I wish I could have seen them again,” I say. “I saw them in Detroit before First And Last And Always came out.”

“I can’t believe you lot like that rubbish goth shite,” chimes in Dave.

“Who do you listen to?” I ask.

“I like groups with some intelligence, like The Smiths or bands with a socialist agenda. You know, like Redskins, Easterhouse, Billy Bragg, Style Council.”

“Bloody leftie,” says Simon.

“You can laugh mate,” Dave says, “But Reagan and Thatcher are ruining the western world. I’d almost rather live in the Soviet Union than America.”

I don’t agree with that, but I’m certainly no fan of Reagan and American foreign policy. “Not everyone in America likes Reagan,” I say. “I sure as hell didn’t vote for him.”

“Well that’s good mate. I wouldn’t speak to you if you had.”

I can’t tell if he’s being serious or not, so I leave it at that and go to the bar. It’s my turn to buy a round. It’s not even dark outside and I’m quite buzzed. This could be a long year.

The rest of the evening quickly becomes a blur as more and more people join our table. Everyone in the bar seems to know Dave, who appears to be the big man on campus amongst the artistic set, the cock of the walk as the Brits used to say. Dave’s crowd seems intrigued that I am an American and actually want to hang out with them.

“We get a lot of Yanks here,” said one, “but they tend to stick together.”

“Or hang out with the bloody Conservatives,” said another.

The students here are politically aware. I don’t know anyone at home who is remotely interested in politics. Most American college students just want to get drunk and laid. I had always naively assumed that Europeans liked Americans (after all we did bail them out in World War II!), but suddenly it doesn’t seem so simple.

The next morning I wake up to a raging hangover and stink of second-hand smoke. Everyone here seems to light up nonstop. Even PJ, who got stoned all the time, rarely smoked tobacco. I remember chuckling like a junior high boy every time I heard anyone ask if they had a fag, which is UK slang for a cigarette.

I go to the kitchen and grab a couple of slices of bread from my shelf unit (everyone here gets an assigned locker to keep non-perishable items like bread, canned foods, tea, and coffee). Last night Dave gave me a spare loaf of bread and some Marmite that I’m about to experience for the first time. This should hold me over until I can buy some real groceries. I take some tea from Dave’s shelf and boil some water. I’m definitely more of a coffee guy, but this will have to do.

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It’s 8:30am and everyone in the flat is sound asleep, recovering from drinking escapades and other tomfoolery last night. I met a few more flatmates when I came home from the pub, including a ginger-haired Scotsman named Alan who was slicing up potatoes like a madman and making everyone chip butties, a sandwich consisting of buttered toast, chips (French fries), and ketchup. Sober, I would have been appalled, but I remember now, just before passing out, that I proclaimed to anyone within earshot that it was the “best fucking sandwich ever.”

I hazily remember that Alan had his boombox out while cooking and kept playing a French language version of Paul Hardcastle’s huge hit “19,” a song that was impossible to avoid all summer on MTV, the radio, or virtually any retail store I walked into. Alan was in a language program in Paris last summer and thought that this was the funniest thing he had ever heard. The song samples actual sound clips from war correspondents, like the one at the beginning that says, “In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was twenty-six, in Vietnam he was nineteen,” followed by Hardcastle repeating, “ni-ni-ni nineteen, nineteen, nini-ni nineteen, nineteen,” over and over. The French remix naturally replaces “nineteen” with “dix neuf.”

I still have “dix neuf, di-di-di dix neuf” rapidly repeating in my brain as I take my tea and toast to the living room. I’m not alone. I see a stocky guy with short brown hair wearing a button down and jeans drinking orange juice. He says hi. An American. I say hi and ask if he’s going to the orientation. He says yeah but that he’d rather be in bed. His name is Dan and he’s from Georgetown. He says that he and few other guys from his school got in yesterday and went to the Top Bar, the other campus watering hole, which I later learn is where a lot of the conservative Brits and most of the Americans hang out. I tell him that I had a long night, too. He asks if I was part of the crowd making French fries. I plead guilty and proceed to tell him about chip butties and how I think I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Dan and I walk down the hill to the main square and go to a lecture hall where the orientation is taking place. There are about thirty Americans on campus. At least ten are from Georgetown, but the others are from a variety of schools, mainly small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast like Bowdoin, Williams, and Bucknell. No one else is from Michigan. When we get a break I find a vending machine that dispenses tea and coffee. I opt for the latter. Dan introduces me to a couple of girls from his school. They both have obnoxiously big hair and are wearing matching blue and gray Georgetown sweatshirts, smacking their chewing gum loudly in tandem. Christ, I may as well be back in Ann Arbor if I’m going to have to put up with this crap all year.

After some polite chitchat I excuse myself as fast as I can for a quick piss. I wash my face and try to straighten my hair though it does look kind of good. The combination of bedhead and a few days of stubble makes me feel like Bob Geldof. On the way back to orientation I see the Bobbsey twins filing in ahead of me, oblivious that I’m right behind.

One of them says, “What’s up with the guy in the leather jacket? He’s a total Euro.”

Her friend asks, “What’s a Euro?”

“You know, a Eurofag. An American who acts like he’s not.”

Fuck you, I mutter quietly. I take this as a sign from above that I don’t belong in a dreary lecture hall, listening to a smug limey administrator tell the Yanks about English life, and decide to head back to Eddington. I make a quick stop at the university store for food and toiletries and see issues of Melody Maker and NME on a shelf next to all the daily scandal sheets like The Sun and The Mirror. Despite The Sun’s promise of topless girls on page three, I only buy the two music papers. When I get to the flat Dave is up, making tea. I toss him the NME. He says, “Cheers, mate” and offers me a cup. The two of us spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon shooting the shit, drinking endless cups of tea, and reading both magazines cover to cover. Dave even reads some of my stuff from The Daily and says he likes it. We have time to kill before the pub opens.

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Ben Vendetta’s second novel, Heartworm (Cooperative Trade, due in Oct. 2015), and according to the author, it will continue Drew’s journey through life, into the next decade, the 90s, as he becomes a small-time music critic, championing an underdog Irish band, Whipping Boy, as he embarks on a voyage of sex and drugs from Boston to Belfast while burying memories of his estranged wife – who is now in danger. His life was once saved by rock ‘n’ roll, but it may be too late for redemption in the last days of the music industry before the bubble bursts. Whether dropped by your record label or dropped by a lover – these situations call for a drink.

About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.