I was a weird child. I can see that clearly now from the safe distance of a decade since I entered my teens. I read a lot. I was in the scouts. Jesus, I even practised first aid for two hours a week! This list, combined with an utter absence of style, secured my position squarely amongst the losers.
Coming, as I did, from a rough working class primary school, it was even harder to engage with people in my new secondary school. Even the freaks scrambled to disassociate themselves from me. The teachers at my primary school came from what might best be called the crowd control school of pedagogy. They didn’t believe their young charges would ever amount to anything, and this lack of belief was reflected in a lack of respect for the children.
Secondary school was a complete counterpoint; a liberating experience. But not being used to any form of freedom, let alone a modicum of respect from a teacher, I found it difficult to know how to act amongst my new peers. It took me quite a while to tame my madness to suit the mores of this new middle class space I found myself occupying.
Throughout all these troublesome late childhood experiences there were two things which brought a comforting continuity. One, of course, was the scouts. The other was a 30 year old woman from Norfolk in England. Her name was Beth Orton. She was a beautiful woman who often she wore a red string top which contrasting sharply with her milky skin and flowing jet black bangs. Her freckled face wore a tight-lipped sylphic smile.
It was a mischievous expression, which suggested that she was about to break some rule or other and it certainly seemed to me that rules could not be made to constrain her. She often talked about staying up all night and dancing home the next morning, drinking cider on her porch, adventures to Paris, sunshine, love and beauty. ‘Live as you dream’, she’d say.
She’d had a troubled childhood. Both her parents had passed away. When her mother died she was barely 19, and in coping with the loss she even ran away to Tibet and became a Buddhist nun. She was shy and self conscious when talking, yet quirky and funny; a really strong woman in her own retiring way.
And here she was. In my room: this incredible, breathtaking woman so full of sunshine yet tinged with tragedy. I could hardly believe it.
Now. Let’s stop here to clarify a few things about our relationship, Beth and I.
I was eleven years old. She was twenty years my senior. Our relationship, I’m willing to admit now, was very wrong. Or at least it would have been if it had been any more physical than the worn-out tape of her songs I listened to on repeat alone in my bedroom. Alas our love affair was even more fictional than the digital radio station of Beth’s native Norfolk.
Yet she is an indelible part of my life. Her songs have formed so much of the soundtrack of my growing up. Perhaps what makes her so special is that I share a love of her music with no one else I know? While the other tweleve year olds were listening to Eminem and preparing for a long life of socialised violent misogyny I was singing songs about freedom, love and heartbreak in Orton’s trademark ‘folk-tronica’ style.
By now Orton has accompanied the weird kid of my childhood as he adventured through years of ups and downs before finally maturing into the socially awkward pop culture vacuum I am today. Her lyrics have wrapped themselves around so many of my memories that I often find myself singing her words as I recall the people, places and events which have shaped my life.
Orton has grown a lot since her time in Thailand. She’s given up the parties and drugs, she no longer finds herself walking home on the ‘central reservation’ of the road wearing last night’s red dress, able to smell her lover and taste him on her breath. She’s been a single mother. She’s struggled not to be typecast in a music business filled with chauvinism. She’s battled with the degenerative Crohn’s disease, which has no known cause or cure
Now Beth is married to New England folk singer Sam Amidon. Her little family is growing and together they’re touring her beautiful new album Sugaring Season. Last night, her tour came to Dublin. Beth was quite sick, but carried on defiantly through coughs and sneezes. It made me smile to see how happy she is, playing alongside friends and the man she loves.
As for me, the weird little kid has grown up too, and while I looked on mesmerised by great tunes and Orton’s sweet, self-deprecating humour I realised that I was finally getting to meet my old friend for the first time. The weird little kid in me was grinning ear to ear.