Tag Archives: ghosts

LYRICS // Ghosts (2007)

I was born in Brighton, a seaside town on the South coast of England. Despite this beginning and several later visits to then-still-resident grandparents, I grew up getting to know an entirely different place – Cardiff, the city I got my schooling in.

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, in the form of a college place, I found my way back to Brighton – delighted to get out of Wales and having a fixed idea in my head of Brighton as some kind of escapist oasis amidst all the mundanity of the rest of Britain.

It was there that I wiled away my twenties. I somehow made it through my University years and racked up over a decade back in the place of my birth, wading through loves and losses, rock ‘n’ roll bands that came and went, and all manner of limits explored. It’s the kind of place that people escape to from wherever is getting them down in their part of the country and then reinvent themselves as something new. It can also become a certain kind of trap – a great place to explore an idea but rarely to make a success of it.

After about 15 years of trying, my musical ambitions reached their zenith when The Zamora had their moment in the national spotlight. To my surprise, just as the band’s star was in ascent, I was rather unceremoniously booted out of the line-up.

I had to come to terms with the fact that the future I’d spent years carving out for myself had been taken out of my hands. Given that I wasn’t really going anywhere career-wise either and with an ultimately disastrous relationship topping off my seaside downfall, my time in my ‘home town’ drew to a natural end.

Although it took a while to come to the decision, I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to wallow in misery but would do something about it instead – as big and radical a challenge as I could give myself – and throw myself into somewhere as crazy and far away as Tokyo to see what happened.

By the time I left Brighton, I was seeing ghosts of my former past all over the city. Ex-flames with new beaus, those I’d once rocked with, workplaces I’d had to put up with in the absence of something better, on every street corner. This song began as an expression of that feeling and was originally written in the present tense – the place that was haunting me. The melody came naturally with the words – a kind of melancholy waltz-y feel – and has changed little since being written.

Songwriting is often an exorcism in itself. Once I wrote the song, I felt a little better about things, that was that. I didn’t really expect to see it ending up recorded and released on an album, least of all produced in Japan. However, when it came to writing the material for ‘Best Before End‘, this was a natural to pull out of the bag.

Of course, by the time it was exhumed, the feelings had changed and the ghosts I’d spoken of belonged to another very distant world. I’d also become more reflective about Brighton and what I’d actually gained from my time there, so the song was adapted slightly with a change of tense suggesting that my haunting was over and I’d learned from the experience.

Telling the above tale explains most of the song, but there is just a little more imagery in it that might require some background.

Woody Allen, when asked why all his films were set in Manhattan, once commented something along the lines that as the whole world was there, it provided all the inspiration he needed to make movies. Unwilling to leave the town for many years for related reasons – my whole world was there – I felt the same about Brighton at one time. In time however, my perspective on it changed and I realised that there was a whole world outside of my seaside shelter. Woody Allen now also makes films in locations other than Manhattan – a natural progression, I feel.

All India Radio‘ came to me from Salman Rushdie‘s Booker-winning novel ‘Midnight’s Children‘, one of my favourite works of fiction. Along with many of the other characters in the book, Saleem Sinai (the protagonist) is born with a certain set of special powers. All children that are born on or after the stroke of midnight on the moment that India is declared independent from British rule are endowed with certain powers and the closer they were born to the striking of the clock, the stronger their powers. Saleem is born as the clock hits 12:00, so his unique abilities are that much more pronounced.

Each gift that the children have been endowed with is unique to them, with the protagonist’s being a telepathic ability. As this develops and as he ages throughout the novel, this ability becomes very useful to the rest of the children, who convene in great conferences in Saleem’s head. Rushdie had his character comparing the feeling of all these competing voices in one space to All India Radio, the nation’s radio broadcaster and home to the hundreds of languages contained within the country.

Prior to the point of my departure from Brighton, I found myself juggling a profusion of multiple identities drawn from the various activities I’d engaged in during my time there – rock singer, teacher, student, manager, unemployed, hedonist, shop assistant, lover, loser, volunteer, bus driver, the list goes on. All these different voices, different versions of myself vying for attention, began to drown each other out, leading to a feeling of like listening to All India Radio.

The song was recorded and released by Shelf Life, staying as a slow-paced and reflective tune. At the time of writing, it doesn’t appear on the band’s MySpace page but is available for purchase from Shelf Life - Best Before End - Ghosts.


That city’s streets,
And all its heartbeats,
Got me wherever I turned.

The riffs and the pages,
The loves through the ages,
Hit me like children and burned.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,
And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

There was a time,
When that place was mine,
Like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Now it’s just a shell,
A lingering smell,
I’d done all I could have done.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,
And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

Voices went round in my head.
Games once played out, now dead.
It felt like All India Radio.

Bodies piled up on the floor.
Couldn’t take it no more,
It felt like All India Radio.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,

And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

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Filed under 2007, Lyrics, Shelf Life

ARTICLES // My Life And Bushido Ghosts (2006)

Probably the most common question I get asked in Tokyo is ‘Why did you come to Japan?’, even after having been here for almost four years. I sense that were I here for 40 years, I’d still get asked on a fairly regular basis.

It’s a fair question to ask, I suppose. During the Edo era (1603-1868), when Japan was ruled by the shogunate and populated by samurai, the country was effectively closed off from any foreign contact. From 1635, the Japanese were prohibited from ever leaving the country and if they did, prohibited from returning. It’s not a place steeped in traditions of mixing with peoples from other races.

Nevertheless, here I am. I think that something like 1% of the people living in Japan today were foreign born, so it’s still a little bit more of a unique experience living here as a ‘foreigner’ that it would be in Europe or the US for example.

In 2005, I was asked to write an article for the Hiroshima-based (and presumably now defunct) bilingual magazine ‘PEACE‘. I titled it with just that same question I am always asked, and it covered not only some of my motivations for coming here but also a little family background (much of my extended family has tended to expatriate themselves or have travelled widely) and the similarities and differences between my life here in Japan and the one I led back in Britain.

The following year, I came across another writing opportunity based on the theme of ‘Home and Exile’, through my subscription to the Brighton Fringe Mailing List. This time, it was for a new publication being set up in the UK, called ‘Don’t Look Back’. I sent off the same piece that was published in the Hiroshima mag, and they were interested enough to ask me to rewrite it and submit a new piece. This I duly did, coming up with the piece found below – ‘My Life and Bushido Ghosts’.

After submission, I never heard from them again, so I actually have no idea whether it was published or not or even whether the magazine ever went to print. I hope that they did, although it would be nice to know whether my article ever went anywhere!

The title was a Japan-slanted pun on the Brian Eno/David Byrne 1981 album ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts‘. Bushido means ‘the way of the warrior’ and commonly refers to the samurai code of conduct. The reference to ghosts comes from my feelings of finding my own ‘ghosts’, people from my past that kept springing up at the most unexpected moments as I neared the end of my time living in the UK.

In a way, writing the piece itself was an exorcism of sorts. Here in Japan, I don’t have so many of my own ghosts and the old ones have lost their spook factor too.

Perhaps next time I’m asked why I came here, I can now just give the questioner this URL and suggest that they find out for themselves!

My Life and Bushido Ghosts

Exiles, immigrants, expats, foreigners, outsiders, refugees – whatever you want to call us, we’re all displaced peoples. The square pegs, the forced out, the seekers and the wandering drifters, each uprooted and elsewhere. It happens to the biggest of us – Napoleon removed and sent to die in Saint Helena, The Stones as tax exiles in fading French chateaus. It happens to the smallest of us too – ghost ships washed up in Barbados, filled with desiccated corpses of young African men, Iraqis fleeing their home tinderbox in any direction they can.

Here in Tokyo, I label myself an ‘expat’. To me, it says that I exercised choice over my displacement. However, to the rest of this still closed global hotspot, I’m just another foreigner and that is what I’ll stay. Always on the outside, looking in. Party perhaps, to the appetiser, but never the full meal.

This is as it has always been. Born in England to an English family, then raised and schooled in Wales, I began with one foot in each camp yet not quite fully fitting into either, ‘different’ from the start. Identity is always so interchangeable and muddled through in the UK that it’s a tough job to convincingly claim to be a nationalist.

About three years ago, I tied up all my loose ends, condensed my life into two suitcases and a laptop and jumped onto a plane at Heathrow – bound for the other side of the world with a blank slate in my head and an empty diary in my bag. Leaving a childhood home or home country, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

I’ve often been asked why I came to Japan, but rarely ever why I left the UK. Most people leave home at some point and all have their reasons, whether they walked out with head held high or were kicked out with tail between legs. I did so for two main reasons. Firstly, because the world is changing rapidly and becoming ever more interdependent, I wanted to experience and understand that transition. To taste and perhaps even help shape some of that emerging global identity. To become a citizen of the future, not a relic of the past. Secondly, my ghosts crowded me out.

Even my original and later readopted hometown of Brighton had begun to teem with them after a while. They laid in wait for me on street corners, in pubs and supermarkets, in the books that I read and the songs I listened to, in the successes of others rightfully mine, and the new bonds made that I was excluded from. Most of all, they laid deep down inside of me, weighing me down and forcing me to chase my tail instead of following my nose or my dreams. I ran away to the new world and I ran away from the old one.

Of course, Japan has its ghosts too. A Tokyoite once told a tale of awakening feeling pressured, only to see the disembodied head of a samurai resting on her chest, and his body slumped in the corner of the room. Then there’s Hiroshima’s living ghosts, the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) and the terrible tales they still tell about one fateful summer day in their childhood and its aftermath. But perhaps as Japan’s ghosts belong to others, I don’t see them in the same way as my own.

Exile, expatriation and exploration seem to run in the family. Both parents are well travelled and weave snapshots of recent human history into the family narrative. My mother, who actually recommended Tokyo to me, spent a little time in Soviet-era Moscow and Leningrad. It can be difficult to visit somewhere that my father’s not been before me. He was in Berlin a week before the fall of the Wall. My sisters, fellow siblings-in-exile, respectively live in Toulouse and Dar Es Salaam.

It goes back further and stretches out wider too. On Dad’s side, an uncle in North Carolina, a cousin born in Zambia. On Mum’s side, an uncle who sent himself to Cameroon, and another uncle in Germany, who’d rejected London at the end of the 1960’s and headed off with a camera round his neck. Hitching on some autobahn or other, he was picked up by a busload of hippies on their way to a Pink Floyd show and later married one of them.

Yet further still, the bloodlines intermingle with the bloodshed and fault lines of the last century or so. Another uncle, this time belonging to my grandmother, seemed to have lived the whole Empire boy dream. He found himself in Shanghai in the 1920’s, where he hooked up with a Russian girl he met. She turned out to be a minor royal that had fled the Revolution in 1917, and was now down at heel, selling matches on the street. Together, they fled China to escape from the invading Japanese and on to Batavia (now Jakarta). The Imperial Army had their sights on Indonesia too so they fled again, ending their days in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was).

Completing the circle, it was a visit to my sister in Tanzania, during the week that the Americans and the British began their assault on Baghdad, that I decided I was finally ready to up sticks, put Blighty behind me and head far East. At the turn of the millennium, the rock ‘n’ roll gang I fronted began getting our first taste of fame by bursting into the national media by accident. Amidst our meteoric rise, however, I was ousted in a coup and thus began my English decline. In time, my senses became dulled by my daily grind and I needed to reawaken them with new experiences. Tokyo lured me with dreams of a high-tech, glittering city of the future.

My life here is both similar and different to the old one in England. I eat more fish than I did before and am also more used to earthquakes, but as I did in the UK, I teach English for cash and occasionally still sing in a local bar band. The all-efficient technology is so pervasive, however, that it’s barely noticed after a while.

My social circle is drawn from a much wider pool than my British one was. A Californian pal tells me tales of living on otherwise uninhabited Hawaiian islands. A Nepalese friend invited me to join him and his family in celebrating the Hindu Festival of Light, at home in Kathmandu. I became the global citizen I was aiming to be.

One part of the story remains untold. As with any haunting, you can only run from your ghosts for so long. In time, if the exile is ever to come home, he must also become exorcist.

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Filed under 2006, Articles, Features