33. Blackpool, Empress Ballroom, 7 September 1997

I go back to my parents’ for a couple of days of nothingness and surrealism. And Princess Diana’s funeral on television.

I phoned Caffy at the last minute on the Friday, I need another gig. Blackpool or Stoke she says – I opt for Blackpool as I can split my journey back to Scotland and finding somewhere to stay will be easy in a town full of B&Bs. I caught her just as she was sending the fax through to set up the guest list.

On Sunday I get a train in the afternoon, via Manchester, loaded with my big rucksack full of all the stuff I’d taken home for the summer. When I get there, it’s already dark but I find a B&B for £13.50. I ditch my stuff and go for a wander past the Tower and despite going round town in the wrong direction, eventually find the Winter Gardens.

United Kinkdom, it says on the posters, that is about right. There’s a perverse selection of other shows on at this warren of venues; Jim Davidson is on next door and on the way here I’ve seen every kind of souvenir tat for sale.  I want to eat but find that I can’t face anything that’s on offer. I fall over Frances where she’s sitting in the queue, she says she’s more mature now and not doing a fanzine any more and doesn’t have much to say for herself.

There’s a separate entrance for the guest list, so I hang about there until 7pm when the doors open. When Tim arrives he asks me if I’ve come with a friend, do I want an extra ticket? I decide it would be too complicated to introduce anyone else into the mix now and I just want to get inside the venue. A proper ballroom with chandeliers. I fetch half a lager and position myself about three rows back on Ed’s side.

Laika are all bass and no one seems to appreciate them or the dub intro tape that follows (is the place full of Liverpudlian Cast fans?). There’s a dumb teenager bias in this crowd that makes me feel a bit old and grumpy, but once the band come on and Airbag kicks in, it’s all systems go.

After three songs, I pass my bag forward over the barrier and bail out to the side where there’s room to frug on the edge of the action. They pull in Bishop’s Robes in the middle of the set and Polyethylene again. Lucky gets saved for the encore, I was beginning to miss it. The bouncy floor yields to stomping and we get Nobody Does It Better to end on. It feels like it was a good one, more than the last two did.

I get my stuff, drink my water and linger by the sound desk. Caffy appears shortly, “I’ve lost me journalists!” We wander casually back stage to the catering area with its plastic chairs and bright lights to find her charges already there reading the roadies’ Sunday Sport and staying up “past their bedtime”. Caffy introduces me to ‘Roy from Select’ and a photographer who’s name doesn’t stick, as “Lucy from… all over”. Roy is having trouble with the song titles, he’s written bits of lyrics down and is looking for a band member to fill in the blanks. Caffy passes him on to me and we plough through his notes from tonight and the Astoria.

“The one that sounds like The Ronettes?”

“Maquiladora.”

After that, trying to make simple conversation is tricky, I ask him if he likes the band and I get his full thesis on how he likes OK Computer but not The Bends. I try to open the discussion out but he seems to be pretty ignorant of their other work. I keep trying to show an interest while Caffy goes in search of some beer. They still want a band member to talk to and no one has emerged yet. Caffy returns with Red Stripe for everyone and I move away from the Select guys, who are reading out stories from the Sport… Thom’s in the corner talking to some people about Apple Macs, I don’t want to miss him again. I stay and drink my beer until he’s finished talking and nearly everyone else has left. He comes over and apologies for not talking to me on Wednesday and I shrug as he sits down opposite.

“What was with all those EMI folks?” I ask.

“They paid for it!”

“I was on the balcony…”

“Oh well then!”

I ask him how the tour’s going. Bridlington was ace, a mad place and the Dundee show was in the town hall. We agree that this is the surreal venues tour. I ask him if he’s ever been to Blackpool before (somehow I doubt it). He says they arrived late last night and the first thing they saw was a girl walking down the middle of the street in a tiny little skirt and a fur bra and nothing else, and it was freezing. “You’ve got to admire that really!”

We talk about America, what he makes of all the fuss over the album and if he thinks it will calm down any time soon. “It’s only a record y’know.” They’re working until May, but “we’re getting three weeks off at Christmas, it’s a record, we could even MAKE a record” he jokes.

He says he’s been up and down, he’s been writing but it’s not…

“Not songs?” I suggest.

He shakes his head.

The promoter was trying to persuade them that next summer they should hire out Milton Keynes Bowl and choose all the other bands and make a day of it. No way says Thom, “Wembley Arena (in November) OK, well that’s sold out, and everyone gets there eventually and I’m used to the idea now and we’ve got to do it, but after Glastonbury I’m not into doing festivals again.”

I saw it on telly, I tell him.

“Technically it was the worst gig of my life and I’d been nervous for about three months and then all the monitors went down and the lights were burning out my retinas, we were bouncing the sound off the mud.

“Have you seen any of the TV stuff?”

“Only Karma Police and I don’t want to see any more.”

“Everyone keeps saying how great it was and I was sitting there watching it on TV and I could tell you were shit scared, you all just kept looking at each other.”

“Well,” says Thom, “My friend, who we’ve seen since in the pub, was there, up on the hill and he says it looked amazing…”

“…with the fireworks?”

“…and everyone was really into it – so am I just being selfish because I had a bad time? I’ve got to accept that it’s the ‘event’ that counts. Andy on the lights has got all this mad stuff for the big shows, projections, stuff hanging from the ceiling. It’s cool.”

He wasn’t sure about the audience tonight, “When we played Polyethylene they weren’t getting it.”

“I enjoyed it!”

“Well, you would!” We pause to sip our beer.

“But what about you?” he asks.

“Pah…” I sigh and pull a face.

“That bad eh?”

“Still at Uni.”

“Edinburgh isn’t it?”

“Glasgow.”

And I tell him all about swapping my degree from English to History of Art, which will mean being a student for five years instead of three. When I mention History of Art he says “Dante!” and tells me his girlfriend is doing her doctorate on illustrations of early versions of the Divine Comedy.

I tell him about my subsidised trip to Holland to visit art galleries; he goes off on a art tangent talking about Italy and New York. They didn’t pay me to go to America, I say. “It’s only £260 on Iceland Air,” he says, trying to help…

I dig a photo out of my pocket. I took it in the summer, of the window display in a record shop in Amsterdam. I show it to him. “It’s suppose to be you with radio ears and a rain cloud over your head,” I explain.

“Old hair but… yeah…” he says, taking it and putting in a combat pocket. We talk some more about the art I’ve been studying. We agree that we like modern stuff the best, but he was mad for William Blake in his first year… and then we start on literature and I get a run down of books he studied at University.

“We arrived and in the first class there was this mad guy who told us to take lots of drugs. ‘I’m not expecting you to do any work,’ go and be yourselves. And we were all like “weyhey!”

I decide I must be at the wrong University. He says once he discovered the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton that was it. We talk about books and he remembers being surprised that he got really into The Portrait Of A Lady…

Caffy pops up to say goodbye and gives me her large vodka and orange, she hugs Thom and I tell her I’ll probably see her in November… We talk a bit more until Tim shows up and says it’s time to go. We stand up and realise everyone else has gone and we didn’t notice. We get to the door and we’re going in our separate ways saying ‘See you’; I’m doing my shrugging trick then Thom gives me a big hug and pulls a face. Tim says “See you tomorrow?”

“Stoke?! Erm yeah if that’s alright?”

“Yeah”, they both say, “of course it is!”

“OK then.” Looks like I’m going to Stoke.

I can’t follow them out, so I find the goods exit and eventually I’m in the street again. There are a handful of stragglers near the bus but I walk calmly past them, they don’t know where I’ve been. I get to the end of the road and feel like I’m going to burst, I’m all charged up and suddenly realise how hungry I am. I look up and I’m on the seafront, the Irish Sea stretched before me in the dark. I lean on the promenade rail and let out a scream that at 3am, there is no one around to hear.