Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Death at One's Elbow-On Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan

 A few years ago, I went to see The Jesus and Mary Chain in Manchester. In between the support and the brother Reed coming on I got talking to a group of five Glaswegian lads. ‘Alright big man? Youse like Mary Chain aye?’. They were all about 20, drunk, excited and wide eyed at the wonder of pop. We got talking about our favourite bands, favourite beers, football (Shrewsbury Town had a couple loanees from the Scottish leagues at the time. Their knowledge of these very minor players was intimidating), books and politics. The very stuff of life.  

 On the way out after, one of them grabbed me by the arm. ‘You coming to 42’s big man? Come on! COME ON!’. I was coming up forty at that point, way too old for the 42nd Street nightclub, but got very rapidly swept up in their lust for the craic, their absolute determination to rinse the evening of every possibility and moment and their youthful joy and gang like bonhomie. It was agreed we would have a drink at their hotel while a couple of them changed shirts. I was expecting a pint at a bar, but we ended in their room, a small twin between the five of them full of rucksacks, socks and empty crisp packets. The ‘drink’ turned put to be two big bottles of vodka and one of those small bottles of Coke you get with a meal deal. We were all, to put it mildly, slaughtered afterwards and failed to get in the the club (‘Come on man! We’ve come from Scotland special’). We did end of one of those Manc clubs that pumps out the usual Madchester/Factory fodder, however. The lads knew every word to every song, and despite their failure to impress the local girls, a good time was had by all.

 The level of debauchery was so intense I think it would be unlikely I’d recognise these lads again if I saw them, and vice versa. But what always comes to mind when I think of them was their youthful passion for music and companionship. I asked them why they came all the to Manchester when they played Glasgow the night before, but it turned out whilst four of them got a Glasgow ticket, one didn’t. So instead they cancelled them and got five for Manchester instead.

 These five lads came almost instantly to mind whilst reading Andrew O’Hagan’s breathtaking novel Mayflies. Act one is set in Scotland in the summer of 1986. Two friends, Jimmy (or Noodles) and Tully decide to leave their boring lives full of angry fathers, the dole and and small town ennui by escaping to Manchester for the weekend, the weekend of the The Festival of the Tenth Summer, a gig at the G Mex curated by Tony Wilson. They are dreamers, Jimmy and Tully. Their world full of records, booze, film quotes and football. Their whole existence a determined and direct reaction of absolute disgust to what Thatcher had turned working class Scotland into.

 O’Hagan captures not only youthful friendship but the period where it was OK to like Morrissey note perfectly. I was not only impressed the detail of the records and venues of the period but deft little touches of juvenilia. Mentions of Merrydown cider and  Victoria Wines sent me reeling back to my own boyhood, a time where illicit booze and swapped records were the very epicentre of my existence, a time when serious thought was put into wearing the right t-shirt. It was a badge of honour, a key to identity and a vain hope of attracting like minded souls. It evokes not the time period as such, but the period of young manhood exquisitely, and nails it down with craftsman like precision. The dialogue between the group of lads is pitch perfect, and very cleverly and subtly brilliant. In between the piss taking, the top three’s the arguments and the genuine love are lines so wonderful you want to tattoo them on your arm.

 Act two is a much more sombre affair. Set in Autumn of 2017, Jimmy is now James and unsurprisingly a revered  writer living in London, and Tully an English teacher at a local comp in Glasgow. At a dinner party celebrating his novelist friend, James gets a phone call from Tully. It’s bad news.

 I don’t want to give too much away, so if you’re thinking of reading the book leave us now and come back when it’s read. OK?


 The second act is a perfectly written acknowledgement of the banality and quiet brutality of death. The perverse push me-pull you of wanting a loved one at peace and not wanting to say goodbye. The piss taking and mischief between Jimmy and Tully is still there, but underneath is cruel inevitability rather than hope. We think death as something powerful and  poetic, but when it’s all said and done, underneath the harsh brightness of the lights and silence of hospital corridors it’s something harsh, unjust and maddeningly untriumphant. A sobering and startling reminder that all we have, all we really ever have, is love and the now. This book is a testament to the joy and importance of love and companionship and the fragility and conciseness of life. I implore you to read it. 

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Astrid and Stu

Klaus Voorman buried his fists in the pockets of his duffle coat ,bowed his head and kept walking. He was stomping the streets of Hamburg after a debate with his friend Jurgan Vollmer and his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr got a little too heated and flamed into an argument. It was not uncommon for the 20 year olds to get into very long, very serious debates, they all identified as an Existentialist.
The gateway in Existentialism was a feeling of “Existential dread”, a baseless loose feeling of disorientation in an apparently meaningless and absurd world. For the three young German’s, the subconscious guilt of the horrors of the second world war had, on surface at least, robbed them of the folly of youth and turned them into ultra serious, contemplative young people. The Exis’s uniform was to dress head head to toe in black clothes and look incredibly serious. Guilt was still rife, young fun and excitement a taboo. What could change to interject these kids with vitality, with lust, with verve, with life? Klaus turned left, and his feet carried him into St Pauli.

Stuart Sutcliffe sat on the red leather seat backstage at the Kaiserkeller club and ran his calloused fingers over the strings of his Hofner President 500/5 bass guitar and let out a yawn so loud it temporally drowned out the the muffled thudding of the band round the corner. The young Scotsman was knackered. Playing from 8:30-9:30, 10 until 11, 11:30-12:30, and finishing the evening playing from one until two o'clock in the morning was taking its toll.
He could feel Paul's eyes burning into him. There had been another row last night, about Stuart’s inability to play his bass properly. He was right of course. Stuart had started to play with his back to the crowd in to disguise his fumbled bass playing from any proper musicians watching.
“Maybe if he took those bloody sunglasses off he could see what he was doing”he had heard Paul moaning to John. But he was no fool. He knew the the girls loved the sunglasses and tight leather trousers. He noticed them gather closer to the stage when he did his solo spot of‘Love Me Tender’. It had not escaped Paul's attention either. But John always, much to Paul's bile, take Stu ‘s side.
Bruno Koschmider enters the room and starts screaming‘Mach Schau! Mach Schau!’through his moustache.
John squeezed Stuart’s shoulder and they made their way through the gloom and noise , past the stripper, and on to the stage. Klaus lifted his face from his glass and looked up.


Astrid was dressed in a black polo neck and squeezed into a tight, tight leather skirt and fishnets. In front of Jurgan and behind Klaus she descended the steps of the Kaiserkeller into the loud, dark furnace below. She was nervous, the Reeperbhan was dangerous place, full of prostitution, drunks and fighting. It was no place for young Existentialists. But she was curious. Klaus had returned from his sulk practically foaming at the mouth about this English band playing rock and roll. Rock and roll? But Klaus was trained in classical piano! He was insistent though. You have to see them! You must! And not wishing to look scared she agreed. She paid her money and walked into the dark, packed, smelly room.

On stage, John Lennon wearing black leather trousers, a black t-shirt and a toilet seat draped around his neck, stuck his left index finger under his nose and stretched out his right arm. “Hiel Hitler!”he screamed into the mic. The war had also deeply effected John, he was born during an air raid, but it was the death of his mother two years earlier that cut him deepest. Not for John were the guilt or sadness the Existentialists found solace in, his was more of a blind and violent fury with a bitter, sarcastic and cruel chip on his shoulder. 
“Sieg Hiel! You bloody Krauts! Who won the bloody war?”he shouts. The dockers, rockers, pimps and thieves didn’t speak English looked on puzzled as a table of American sailors fall about laughing.

Astrid, Jurgan and Klaus do speak English , and speak it rather well. Klaus looked up at the stage, his eyes glazed, his mouth a huge smile. Jurgan and Astrid shot each other uncomfortable looks.
Maybe we should goshe whispered in Jurgans ear. What? I cant hear you!.

John gripped his guitar a one two three four.

The Beatles tore into a rock and roll number, something about Johnny being good. Klaus was right thought Astrid, there is something about it.
 Just as furiously as the song started it finished and the boy with the bass guitar who had his back to the audience for the whole song turned around to share a joke in Johns ear. Astrid looked at his sunglasses and smile and knew. She just knew.

Astrid goes to bed that night and thinks of a way of getting closer to the band. She bought them all a beer after their set and blushed as they all chatted her up. John distant and sarcastic, loud and funny but oddly isolated. Pete the drummer, the girls favourite back in Liverpool is out of his depth here and he knows it. Paul is polite and curious and charming and George boyish and shy. But it’s Stu who takes her fancy though.
He’s honest enough to admit he’s no musician but he is an artist. A very good one John tells her. Stuart is just along for the ride, to have a laugh with his mates. He doesn’t want to be in the biggest band in the world. That’s more John’s thing. Pipe dreams. He does, he tells her, want to be the best painter.
Then suddenly it hits her. She silently thanks Reinhard Wolf, her old her tutor who persuaded her to drop her fashion design course and take up photography. She has an eye and gift for black and white photography, all of her friends tell her so.
The next day she takes her Rolliecord 24.2 camera and the band to a fairground at the Hamburger Dom muncipal park. It was a master stroke. The lads loved the idea of having a free session for promo photo’s, with the added bonus of getting to flirt with that arty German girl.
She set up her tripod, directed the boys where and how to stand and *click* recorded history.

Up to that point, all pictures of the Beatles were snaps shots taken by mates. All of them fail to capture the magic on stage. The boys always look a little nervous and overly showy, as if dropping their guard for a second would make all these dreams disappear into a puff of smoke. Astrid’s photographs not only capture the period in incredible clarity, but she also manages to hold up a mirror the group. Until then all the daydreams of their image are in their head. Look, say Astrid’s pictures, look how cool you are, look how sexy.

*Click* and all of sudden a sex based music with it’s roots in raw black American R&B star crossed with the clean, modern and cerebral ideas of European expressionism and something changes forever.


Two years later on the plane to Flughafen Hamburg, John takes out an rereads his letters from Stuart. He can't wait to see his pal and there’s lots to catch up on.

The Beatles run in the Reeperbahn came to a sticky end when George was busted for being under age and the group is deported. Back in Blighty the Beatles, having their craft honed after playing hour after hour in Germany, are the best group in Liverpool and attract the attention of local entrepreneur Brian Epstein. As John sits on the plane, plans are afoot to record. Their first single, Love Me Do, will be released in six months time.

The record will, however, not have the playing of Stuart Sutcliffe on it. When George turned eighteen and the Beatles returned to Hamburg last year, Stu decided to leave the band to concentrate on painting, sportingly lending Paul McCartney his bass. Before the deportation Astrid and Stuart fell deeply in love, and though Astrid felt guilty (what is it about Existentialism and guilt?) about doing so whilst still in a relationship with Klaus. She moves Stu in with her and her mum. Klaus, sportingly, takes the break up on the chin. They were too beautiful not to be together.

Stu had chosen wisely. He is awarded a postgraduate scholarship and enrolls at Hochshule Fur bildende Kunste Hamburg, where he studies under the tutelage of Eduardo Paolozzi. Though his moody and dark art sold for serious money back in Liverpool, his Hamburg paintings are influenced by British and European abstract artists contemporary with the Abstract Impressionist movement in the United States. His work from this period will later hang in the Liverpool Walker Gallery as well as the homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Astrid and Stuart continue to live with Astrid’s mum, they exchange rings and become engaged. He paints and she works part time to support him. She knows how good his work is, how important it can be. He complains of headaches but keeps working working working in his studio in Astrid’s loft. The paintings improve daily. The future is fascinating and bright. He misses his friend John, and can’t wait to hear what the band are up to.

The safety belt lights flashes and John folds Stuart’s letter and put’s it in his pocket. When the plane finally lands in Hamburg he races off it in search of his mate Stu. He doesn’t see him, but he does see Astrid wearing Stu’s leather jacket. He see’s she is alone and that she is crying.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Andrew Weatherall 1963-2020

The last time I saw Primal Scream live was in Sheffield when Rachel was about three weeks pregnant (Primal Scream, not bad for a first gig Martha) and it was a bit of a disaster. Rachel’s mate had failed to read the ticket properly and we ended going in just as the encores started. I spent the evening feeling paranoid that some pisshead would barge into Rach and the Scream were a bit lumpy and static compared to previous gigs going back three decades.

Afterwards, over a pint (or orange juice depending on your present state of propagation) I felt a bit bad and conceded that it was possibly my reception of the music that was floored rather than what was coming off the stage. Except the tepid version of Loaded. That was unforgivable.

One my most treasured memories of JLH was playing Loaded back to back with I'm Losing More.. at the very first night and the whole floor just totally got into it. I remember looking at John Kertland, both of us grinning and thinking 'fucking hell, we got this'. As a result we played it at every night we did. Not the coolest record at the time, but we never cared about cool, we cared about fucking genius.

How can anyone recreate a record as perfect as Loaded? It still sounds like it was made tomorrow. It still sounds fresh, sexy and vital. Deadly serious and devilishly fun. It’s still sounds like teenage car journeys and Anita Cash dancing in slow motion in dry ice in 1992. It’s still Just Want to Dance the Night Away by the Mavericks for perpetually cool and the seekers of thrills.  It still makes me get up and dance. If Loaded was Andrew Weatherall’s only artistic contribution he’d always be an icon. But he was so much more.

Like all indie kids, the first time I heard the name Andrew Weatherall it was in the credits of Screamadelica. I thought he was a producer, someone who added a bit of shine and radio friendly-ness to a record. I had no idea he actually created the music himself. The second time I heard his name he was being described as DJing at an Acid House party wearing a Wonder Stuff t-shirt. This was something I could relate too and this was the secret of Andrew Weatherall’s genius.

I remember reading a magazine, probably the NME, with Norman Cook, Pete Tong and Paul Oakenfold on the cover and in the article they were basically saying dance music was the future, guitar music was shit and anyone who listened to it was an idiot. Andrew Weatherall came from a club culture but had an incredible ear and adoration for music. Not dance music, not indie music, music full stop. It was an incredible gift. His ability to blend genres, blend ideas, to take little bits and make something beautiful and new was talismanic and inspiring as fuck.

It was Weatherall who reviewed the second Primal Scream LP and banged on and on about how great the ballads where when everyone else had written them off. It was him who made the remix of Soon by MBV, and a record that by rights shouldn't even exist. The idea you could create a club banger from a shoegaze band on the same label as The Jazz Butcher and The Loft? Incredible.

But this was Andrew Weatherall. Constantly and consistently (he never stopped, he recently reworked a single by indie band The Orielles) pushing boundaries, reaching for the stars and seeing how far he could go and what he could get away with. He will, of course, be remembered for making music that made clubs full of people go mental and his impeccable taste. I’ll always remember him for making dance music you can actually sit down and listen to and inviting skinny awkward indie kids to the party.

Come together as one, I cant think of a more perfect epitaph.  

Friday, 31 January 2020

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of the Just Joans

For those of you who don’t know (or own an Arctic Monkeys record) Motherwell’s Just Joan’s are indiepop royalty. Named after the Daily Record agony Aunt, they write tender, razor sharp songs about actual real life, often incorrectly called Miserablist when they are in fact Realist. They are lead by brother and sister Katie and David Pope (kind of a White Lightening Stripes) and their shows are funny and true and as a punter you feel part of the Just Joans family. People look to their music to get a feel of what’s going on in Scotland the same way people looked to Public Enemy to see what was happening in Detroit. It’s thanks to them a whole generation proudly drinks Buckfast from a bottle and knows what an ‘empty’ is. Their songs are delivered with tongues placed so steadfastly in cheek and with great fists full of salt, its easy to forget what talented songwriters they actually are. Indeed, in If You Don’t Pull and What Do We Do Now? they have two bona fide, 24ct anthems. Underestimate them at your peril.

It was somewhat jarring to realise that last time the postman delivered a Just Joans LP, it was realised on Wee Pop! records. To me. Wee Pop was a talisman, an icon, of the high tide mark, the very peak of indiepop when it seemed there was a new record, band or label to get excited about every week, life revolved around getting drunk with your pop heroes in tiny rooms above pubs and the summers were as endless as the possibilities. Nostalgia? Most certainly, but its hard not to hark back to a time before brexit and Morrissey turning out to be an absolute prick. As MJ Hibbett but it so succinctly recently, we really are ten years older and the band we loved really are dead. Do we actually need the Just Joans?

Well on evidence of this LP, the answer is a resounding yes. ‘Confessions’ is the record they have been aching to make. I despise the word ‘mature’ (it makes me think of moldy cellars) but it really does fit like a glove. Everything has gone up around ten notches since the last record. The singing is confident rather than bashful, the songwriting bristles with verve and ability. Take the chorus of Wee Guys (Bobby’s got a punctured lung) which absolutely soars and is so strong I had to check they hadn’t nicked it. See also the beauty of the strings on Dear Diary, I Died Again Today which shine the song up like a diamond. The lyrics are incredible too. When Nietzche Calls is an arty goth 101 but no less beautiful for it. The heart wrenching The Older I Get, The More I Don’t Know is the song M*rriss*y wishes he wrote. The swooning The One I Loathe The Least is gorgeous as it is wise (The record stores have closed their doors/the cinema shut down/and every bus is calling us/to pack up and leave town).

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of Just Joans will hopefully make the band realise just how talented they are. Just Joans have produced a proper grown up record that bares repeated listening and should find it’s place amongst the annals of Caledonian pop music. If Stuart Murdoch isn't jealous of this record, he really should be.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Martha, Manchester Gorilla 10/11/19

This is a very, very, very old song” says JC introducing Standing Where It All Began, and in the terms of tonight’s crowd I am a very, very, very old man.

Martha could have been made for me. Their soft, oddly comforting Durham accents are the same as my nan's, they share my dad's politics and my mum's level headedness. I first heard the name on the lips of Ace Bushy Striptease, a localish and rather wonderful noise pop band who struggled to describe just how wonderful they were. I had crush on them after the first play of their EP (self released on Discount Horse records) and by the time I found out that 1978, Smiling Politely and Gretna Green were about poet/activist Audre Lorde and the 1915 Quintinshill rail disaster, respectively, it was a full blown love affair. I started to notice Martha stickers on guitars and flight cases. Every band seemed to adore them. Not just because their music is incredible but because they are genuinely warm, funny, unassuming people. It wasn't long before they were my favourites too.

Gorilla in Manchester is big, and cavernous and it's possible to keep you’re coat on and not be cold. Not quite as big as Heaven in London, a 1200 capacity venue Martha filled the night before, but certainly big enough. For someone who once witnessed Martha entertain 20 citizens of Leamington Spa in a matinee show, it's nothing short of a thrill so them in such a lofty position. Bloody hell, they deserve it.

After wonderfully entertaining sets from Wormboys (a winning mix of Throwing Muses and early PJ Harvey. Halt That Rattle is song worthy of your attention) and Orchards (a No Doubt-esque troupe of good vibes that I confidently predict will be flooring them on the main stage at Indietracks very soon) Martha slink on stage to a heroes welcome. And really it's the crowd that make tonight so special.

Tonight is a celebration of the misfit and the marginalised. Beside me someone wearing a full beard, full make up, flashing plastic animal horns and a massive smile is having the best time ever. Two girls at the end of the crush barrier kissing. All around me people leap around smiling and singing the words as if their life depended it on it. I've not seen a bands audience so dedicated to fun since the Flaming Lips in the late 90's. It's an occasion this. A jubilee of what makes us unique and what we have in common. To a generation, Martha are their Smiths or Manics. A band to love and believe in. If you go on Insta you'll see an array of tattoo's in Martha's honour. They mean it. And what's warming is they treat following Martha like following a local football team away, anyone is invited and the bigger the following the better.

Not so long ago people at pop shows felt very woke and weirdly worthy in welcoming LGBT amongst their numbers but tonight all that is ,wonderfully, turned on it's head and I feel oddly proud that this middle aged dad has been accepted as a fellow Martha fan. In a time of division, political awfulness and nervous unrest, Martha and Martha fans shine like a beacon. It's truly a joy to go out and have such a fun time and a testament to the tired yet ultimately true adage that we are stronger together.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

The Understudies-If Destroyed True

When I was singing and writing this and workin’ with her, I was visualizing all the people of my age group; I’m singing to them. I’m saying, ‘Here I am now, how are you? How’s your relationship going — did you get through it all? Wasn’t the ’70’s a drag (laughter)? Here we are, let’s try to make the ’80s good, y’know?’ It’s not out of our control. I still believe in love, I still believe in peace, I still believe in positive thinking. Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

And suddenly, just like Lennon recording Just Like Starting Over, it's ten years later. The people who found each other on Myspace have grown up. Hair a little thinner, waist a little thicker, we've moved from crumbling flats to crumbling houses with a little garden. Our jobs and commutes grow more stressful. The indiepop songs about librarians are now DIY pop songs about identity politics. We have cats and kids to look after and our heroes have revealed themselves as racists and sex pests.The daily horror show of politics, which grows more ludicrous and utterly hopeless by the minute, has taken over the social media which was once full of book and record recommendations. Our self deprecating bonhomie has become polite panic. Modern life brings us closer to our nearest but further away from each other. These are nervous times.

So what to believe in? Well, love of course. And music. Our desire for new music may dim, but our need for good music does not. And friends, our patient wait for a record dedicated to those too old for The Courteeners and too proud for the Shinnne On festival is finally over.

If Destroyed True, the Understudies second LP is a perfectly times masterpiece. An indiepop Unknown Pleasures that instead of following obvious paths carves it's own way, leaving the listener mapless and optionless but to listen to and try to pursue. It's a proper album this, a record not to chuck on whilst doing the ironing but to sit down and absorb with the attention afforded a subtitled film.

Millennial Generational tension is covered calmly and deftly in Sweet Tea (Dance halls fall into the sea/I feel it coming/make a pot of sweet tea/and watch the city capsize) and Helsinki (Please don't make me take another selfie), the latter coming across like Radiohead's Planet Telex for the forty something, and in the dark and satisfying Grousebeat (It's like Phil Collins writing songs about the homeless/I'm not a rich pop star/just a casual observer).

But where there is darkness there is light. Precious Heart and the almost startlingly intimate New Dress are no messing about straight up love songs, giving lie to the Motown notion that songs about love must be about the rush of new romance or the lows of a relationship coming apart. These songs, cleverly and correctly, offer the view that the calm of the centre of a relationship given time to blossom and bloom is to be to be cherished. You can't write songs like this without living them first.

And it's not only Brian Bryden's songs that have matured into something wonderful. The band (fairly recently and hurriedly assembled on début LP Let Desire Guide Your Hand) seem to have finally, FINALLY, realised how good they are and absolutely reek of verve and confidence. Thom Allott's songs are also a welcome addition and fit in effortlessly. Past Addresses is as calm as the ocean and as troubled as a storm, and if you squint a bit sounds like a Tindersticks song. Slow Train is a beautiful and fitting closer but it's the tensely wired Wolves which really pushes the band to new boundaries, it sounds like Delicatessen and The Veils and I almost guarantee you it's their favourite to play live.

I once predicted this LP (then unrecorded) would be album of the year. I was wrong. It turns out it's an LP of a generation. With melodies to die for and lyrics to tattoo on your arm, it's a masterpiece and proof (if needed) that faith in hope in music is seldom misplaced. If Destroyed True makes the Understudies the most mis-monikered band since Extreme and Eternal. They've lit the torch of quality which others must follow. Clutch this record to your heart. 


Thursday, 20 June 2019

Secret Histories Revealed

I first came in contact with Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History in my early twenties when a woman I had had an exotic, turbulent and ultimately doomed (aren't they all?) affair with came bounding, years after speaking to each other, up to me in the middle of town and excitedly and passionately recommended Tartt's book. Our fling consisted of little more than discussing literature and music, and kissing.

It's clear, in retrospect, we were two lonely people and used each other to cement some form some sort of identity; it was exciting to find someone who shared the same ideals and intellectual leanings. It wasn't love, but a bond of mutual aspiration and common interest. I wrote down the title in my journal, we pecked cheeks, and parted. I didn't see her again for five years.

She was correct of course, The Secret History almost instantly became my favourite novel. A book about a group of rich college kids who study Greek under the inspiring and beguiling Julian Marrow and murder a class mate is maybe an odd favourite. The fact it contains no likeable characters and no female ones of any kind of depth makes it an even more curious choice. But I knew it was special when started to have dreams, not in the aesthetic or timbre, but in the mood of the book. I reread it at least once a year, an intellectual comfort blanket.

It's human nature that when we fall so baldy for a work of art that we want to know more about it, but The Secret History left slim and scarce pickings. Tartt, easily as gifted as Salinger, yet just as reclusive and interview prone left little clues. Then as if a gift from the gods for Tarttophiles came an Esquire article by author Lili Anolik about Bennington college in the 80's. It's incredibly well researched and it's parallels chime like a bell.

Bennington itself is eerily similar to Tartt's fictional Hampden college, based in Vermont it's a geographical match, even to the detail of both having a graveyard running to it's side. Brix Smith, a Bennington drop out who would later go on to play in The Fall describes it as like something out of a child’s fairy tale. It was so isolated and so beautiful, and it was green and surrounded by mountains. At the center of campus was a building—tall, white, very grand, with columns and a bell clock—called Commons. If you stood in front of Commons, you’d see, if you looked to one side, an old graveyard, and to the other side, a meadow. And then, if you looked straight ahead, a long, lush, rolling lawn lined by lovely, New England-y clapboard houses, creating this visual corridor so that your eye was drawn to the end of it, where the earth suddenly fell away, just—poofvanished. Not really, of course, but it looked as if it did. We called it “the End of the World.” Mists would roll in there at night, these swirling mists so thick you couldn’t see your hand when you held it up to your face. The rumor was that the campus was the site of an ancient Native American burial ground. Supposedly it was one of the few spots on earth where all four winds met at the same time. And there was something sacred about it, something haunted.

Even the winter break where Richard lives in a warehouse and almost dies is taken from Bennington (Bennington had something called NRT, Non-Resident Term. The school couldn’t afford to heat itself during the winter and so it shut down. You went out into the world and got an internship or job).

What's perhaps most jarring are the parallels between the novels characters and actual Bennington people. From the privileged party animals (You’d be shocked that this Neanderthal-looking dude sunbathing by a keg was actually, one day, going to inherit the Benson & Hedges fortune) to the most learned.

Julian Marrow is quite heavily based on classics professor Claude Fredericks (When I went to interview with Claude, his first question was “Have you ever had a job?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.” And then he said, “Have you ever been to a football game?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.”)

The detail is incredible, Julian's classroom is difficult to locate (Claude’s office...was hard to find. It was in Commons, at the top of this sort of secret staircase that was outside the building and led only to his office.) and bedecked with flowers (There’d be these exquisite flowers, Japanese flowers—I don’t know how or where he got them—in a vase, and everything was polished, beautiful. You’d sit across from him, and he’d serve you tea, and you really felt like you were in the inner sanctum.) , the anteroom where Julian was 'miraculously able to convey four-course meals' out of (You went to Claude’s office for lunch, and out would come this incredible food, and you didn’t know how he’d prepared it. You didn’t see it, you didn’t smell it, and then there it was—a perfect soup, a perfect quiche. He was a bit magical).
Even the Mont-blanc pen of Bunny and Henry's argument pops up (The idea of Claude having a big nouveau-riche pile of Montblancs was really too much.) (No, the Montblancs were true. But it was a piece of accidentalia that Donna seized on and used in a pointed way.)

Fredericks' words are quoted and used as Julian's. 'Julian took both Henry's hands into his own 'You should only, ever, do what is necessary' (Claude was my advisor when I was a student at Bennington. I had an appointment with him, and I was waiting outside his office. The door opened and out stepped this beautiful young man with curly blond hair. And the first thing I heard Claude say was “Not, do only what is necessary. Only do what is necessary.”)
(what Henry said about Julian—“I loved him more than anyone in the world”—was true of how I felt about Claude. He was the single greatest influence on my life.)

Other characters crop up too. (The Secret History isn’t so much a work of fiction. It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef. When it came out, Claude and Matt and I got endless calls. Everybody was saying, “Oh, did you know Donna just wrote a book about Claude and you all? And Claude is Julian and Matt is Bunny and you’re Henry.”)

Bunny is based on Matt Jacobsen (I called my mother and said, “I’ve been caricatured in a book, and my character gets killed.” And she said, “No, no. No one would ever kill you, not even in print, no.” Then she read the book and said, “That’s you all right.” I wore wire-rimmed glasses like Bunny. I had dyslexia—that’s what they called it in the 70s, anyway—like Bunny. And, like Bunny, I was an extremely affected young man. I’d make broad, questionable statements. One day in the dining hall I was gawking at some girl and said, “Reminds me of the way Diana’s painted on the ceiling of my father’s club,” and that line found its way into Donna’s book. And I’d invite people to lunch and then realize I didn’t have any money, something dear old Bunny does. I was kind of a horrible bounder, though in my case it was never intentional. A funny thing. Bunny was actually what everyone called Margaret, Paul’s first girlfriend—the girlfriend before Donna, a cranberry heiress. Some folks thought it odd that my character’s name should’ve been taken from Paul’s old flame. But I always thought the name came from the critic Edmund Wilson. Bunny was his nickname, too.) and Henry on Todd O'Neal ( Henry’s apartment was like my apartment. His eye problems, the chip in his tooth. I smoked Lucky Strikes. I wore suspenders and glasses. I’d gone to a Benedictine monastery for high school, where I learned Latin, and I taught myself Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit. I was very deep into the study of Plato and Plotinus, as Henry is described as being. I did go on a trip with Matt, and I did end up having to pay for it because his father didn’t give him much money and he was a bit of a sponge, though he and I always had fun together.)

And what about Donna Tartt, the most illusive of all characters? Well, we learn like Richard her parents were both gas station attendants (father) and secretary (mother). We learn she quoted herself: 'I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden' Tartt writes in The Secret History. And in her commencement speech: 'There is a time in everyone’s youth when character is fixed forever; for me, and I believe for most of us here, our Bennington years were that time.'

What I find most fascinating about the piece is Tartt's reinvention of herself. There is a picture from her school year book, long hair, cute dress, shy smile and one in Bennington in man's waistcoat and tie (Donna started wearing those mannish-cut blazers. She looked like a Mini-Me when she was hanging out with us. Black loafers, khaki pants—boys’ pants, not girls’—J. Press–type button-down, necktie, blue blazer with brass buttons, and hair in this funky little asexual bob. She looked like she came straight out of an English university. She and Paul were like Oxonian homosexuals or something. I once asked him, “What kind of relationship do you have?” And he said, “Well, that’s very funny, because she wants me to call her ‘my lad.’ ”) a cigarette burns in her fingers and she stares through the camera lens.

College is where self discovery and self image are cemented. It's where you decide what and who you are. You can play a few chords? You are a musician. You do a fanzine? You are a writer. It's where ideas germinate and plans blossom. Sometimes, sometimes, they bloom into the best novel of a generation.

Now, who wants to tell me who Judy Poovey is based on?

All quotes in italics are taken from Lili Anolik's incredible article for Esquire thank Ms.Anolik and apologise for pilfering her work so liberally.