One of the biggest influences on my life, let alone my writing, is Martin Wilson. I should know; he’s my brother. Older than him by a mere thirteen months, I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t there.
(A quick plug. Martin makes art by taking photographs, in sequence, which, displayed together, spell out sayings, song lyrics and rhymes. Which is a pretty poor description of his laborious and loving process:
‘I’ve arrived at a way of working where I put every frame on display. The entire film is visible. The numbers underneath each frame show that each picture is taken consecutively…
My pictures are painstakingly created frame by frame on 35mm film. I get the whole film developed, scan it, then piece the final image together on the computer, making a large contact sheet. It’s only when the completed film strips are laid out side by side in the contact sheets that the final image appears.
Each work usually takes months to complete, as each frame is obsessively taken in sequence. No pasting together after the event, no cheating in Photoshop!
If I make a mistake or take a frame out of place I start the film again from the beginning.
The works are all records of real journeys, the visual remnants of hours walking or cycling round town, bringing to life the unheard voices of the city.’
As far as I know, he has only ever made one mistake. He showed me, and I couldn’t see it. I do happen to think he is a genius.)
From the mid-Eighties to Nineties we played in a band together. Pre-internet, pre-CD, pre-everything. We called ourselves Sublime. We busked around Europe wearing tie-dye vests with shorts. Someone once described us as a cross between Simon and Garfunkel and the Smiths. We were big in St Albans.
I remember arriving at a dozy French town, once, whose square we decided to play for no other reason than we both recalled its name from history lessons at school. ‘What if it turns out to be a one horse town?’ I asked him. ‘Well, we’ll just go and look at the horse,’ he said.
Once I had cleaned the sandwich I was eating from my shins, I reflected that this may be one of the great tenets of all creative activity. Suburban boys from the sticks singing unpublished songs in unheard-of European backwaters, there was more than a little madness in our methods, an anti-route to stardom, if you will.
But playing to one French teenager songs she did not recognise and would never hear again, we quickly learned that it was possible to make connections, albeit very tiny ones, if we were prepared to follow our lights.
‘We’ll just go and look at the horse.’
Martin taught me that you begin with where you are: it doesn’t matter if it is the middle of nowhere. Also, that you need to notice what is around you. Respond. Observe. Then make something out of that response. Above all, commit. The square with no one in it is the one you are going to play because you are in it. Once you have decided to play it, you play it, for all you are worth. Even if no one is watching.
My other memory of Martin is of watching him eat as a child. At Saturday evening supper he would painstakingly (that word again) assemble multi-layered sandwiches Scooby-Doo would have been proud of. First a bit of cheese. Then a layer of tomatoes. Then some salami. Then some slices of egg, which he sliced, very slowly. Then some lettuce. A final piece of cheese. Just as he would begin to eat, the rest of the family would be clearing their plates. Aged eight he was already the master of delayed gratification.
He is more or less using the same methods now. First you do this. Then that. Then that follows. And on. You do not see the final picture until the end. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. Ignore them. You have only the process. Your process. That is all that matters.
Martin taught me how to stand in front of an audience, the importance of rehearsal, and the absolute necessity of tuning up before singing (even if that meant keeping people waiting). I do not possess a tenth of his perfectionism, not naturally at any rate. But he has taught me the art of playing the (very) long game, the rewards of process, the dogged joy of committing to what is in front of you. As he said to me as we went on stage before our very first gig: ‘It’s your song, you wrote it, so you get to sing it.’