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March 2015

GUEST BLOG: 10 ways to identify true friends
31st March 2015 - 12 Midnight A D Miller


The Faithful CoupleIn The Faithful Couple, the new novel from A D Miller, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Snowdrops, two young men build  a close friendship travelling up the west coast of America. But it is a friendship built on shared guilt and a secret betrayal, and these dark secrets are to dog them over the two decades, even as they move on to new places in their lives.

 

So how to do you know who's a true friend and who's just passing through your life? Here, AD Miller shares the ten signs that you've got a friend for keeps.

 

 

When I was a teenager, I read a novel (French, I think) in which the hero gets together with his old pals. Naturally, the narrator casually observes, they and he all hated each other. What an odd thing to say about close friendships, I remember thinking. Now I get it: in any longstanding acquaintance, resentments accumulate with the affection, warmth is shot through with grudges.  Here are ten things that, in the course of these essential, paradoxical relationships, our best friends do for us:

 

1: They tell us the truth

Because somebody has to. No, that doesn’t suit you. No, you shouldn’t have that affair. No, you’ll never make it on the stage. Yes, you drink too much. Yes, you can do better than her.

 

2: They lie to us

Yes, she’s wonderful - because, beyond the unwritten statute of limitations (six months, or thereabouts), you can’t criticise someone’s partner, not even your best friend’s. Or, when the situation he’s in is beyond repair: Of course this bedsit is lovely. No, there was nothing you could have done. Yes, everything will be all right.

 

3: They enjoy our success

You get the good news - the job, the promotion, the book deal, the doctor’s all clear—and you want to tell them, because without their witness to the event, it is somehow incomplete. And they want to know, and to congratulate you, because they know what you put into this, and how much it means.

 

We Hate It When OUr Friends Become Successful4: They resent our success
As Gore Vidal and Morrissey both observed. Especially if you succeed in what is supposed to be their thing, not yours; if the natural order is reversed. Then your success becomes an injustice, a measure of everything they haven’t done or achieved. Friends are our yardsticks and our competition. If their success means money, that probably hurts, too, however much you think it won’t. That opportunity for niggle is another reason we need to tell them about our triumphs, and vice versa.

 

5: We are at our best with them

Our friends carry a trace or imprint of us at our most golden: at the moment of our maximum possibility, our funniest and our freest. That holiday; that night out. They reflect an image of ourselves at our most deserving of devotion, our most selfless.

 

6: They see us at our worst

Drunk. Hungover. Sacked. Jilted. Bereaved. Our true friends see us in all these conditions; they know us at our lowest, weakest and most vulnerable. But they also see us at another kind of worst: Wrong. Guilty. Remorseful. They know our secrets, and we know theirs. Sometimes the secrets and the guilt are shared. Secrecy is at the heart of friendship--which partly consists in those confidences we share with friends and no one else. Or, as one of the loyal, vindictive friends at the heart of my novel, The Faithful Couple, puts it, friendship is 'a lifelong, affectionate mutual blackmail'.

 

7: They matter as much as our families

The defining feature of friendship is that it is discretionary: you are friends only because you want to be, a freedom that is also your strongest bond. Unlike the obligations of family, our friendships are choices. That gives them their meaning and their strength.

 

8: They are our family

Few people have enough space in their life for many close friendships. And intimacy is in part a function of longevity. That means that, beyond a certain age, making new best friends is impractical. Conversely, the ones we have become hard to shed. They are repositories of our past: if we lose them, we risk severing some of ourselves, too. We end up as bound to them as to our families. They become irreplaceable—and inescapable.

 

9: We can count on them

To come out when we want to celebrate, even if they’re not in the mood. To come round when we’re disconsolate. To help us move flats. To lend us money. To lend us their sofa. To look after the kids when we’re in a tight spot. To care about our puny dilemmas. To keep our secrets. To make us laugh.

 

10: They betray us

To let us down. Only our friends can truly betrays us; the mass of people you care about less can’t do that to you, they haven’t got the power.  Forgotten birthdays, unpaid debts, missed appointments, busted lies, people changing wrongly as they aged, not being who you wanted them to be… betrayal is what friends do.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: What McQueen learned at St Martins
21st March 2015 - 12 Midnight Andrew Wilson

Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson is an incisive and in-depth biograph of the son of an East End taxi driver who went on to become one of the most visionary designers the fashion world has ever seen. He was to provide outfits for clients as diverse as Kate Middleton and David Bowie, Sarah Jessica Parker and Michelle Obama, before his suicide at the age of 40.

 

His genius is recognised at in a new exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, running at the V&A until 2nd August. Also now open is a new free exhibition at Foyles, Charing Cross Road: Inferno: Alexander McQueen is a collection of previously unseen, backstage photographs from Alexander McQueen's seminal 1996 show Dante, open until 3rd May.

 

McQueen learned his craft at Central St Martins, the renowned art and design college that relocated to King's Cross from its former Charing Cross Road site, in a building that Foyles now proudly calls home. As Andrew Wilson reveals, it was here that he first made his indelible mark on the fashion world, coming to the attention of legendary designer Isabella Blow.

 

  • See our selection of books on the life and career of Alexander McQueen here

 

In October 1990, when 21-year-old Lee Alexander McQueen walked through the doors of Central St Martins at 107 Charing Cross Road - now home to Foyles' flagship store - he immediately felt a sense of belonging. 'What I really liked was the freedom of expression and being surrounded by like-minded people,' he said. 'It was an exciting period for me because it showed me there were other people out there like me.' Louise Wilson, who became the director of the MA fashion course during McQueen's time at the college, said, 'That was the beautiful thing about art school. If you were a misfit and you hadn't fitted in anywhere then art school was the place where you could feel at home.' Wilson remembered the St Martins building in central London with a certain fondness. 'If you were trying to describe it you would say it would be like arriving at a disused hospital in Russia,' she told me. 'It was like walking into the best broken-down warehouse that had not been revamped. There were windows that didn't work, the floor was cracked with red lino, and the studio had four pattern tables that were really just slabs of wood on top of old chests of drawers, tables that were too low and gave you horrible backache. And yet it was fabulous.'

 

During those 18 months at St Martins, McQueen became increasingly interested in drawing inspiration from the dark side. According to one contemporary, Lee became obsessed by Burke and Hare, the Irish immigrants who carried out a series of murders in Edinburgh at the beginning of the 19th-century and who sold 16 corpses to a doctor to be dissected. At the same time he also read Perfume, Patrick Suskind's bestselling novel about a perfume apprentice in 18th-century France who goes on to murder virgins in his quest to find the 'perfect scent'.

 

Lee told friends that his family was related to Jack the Ripper. His interest in the Victorian serial killer intensified after seeing the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. McQueen became fixated on the character of Buffalo Bill, a psychopathic tailor who kills women in order to fashion a suit made from their skins. 'The idea of these women being sewn into an outfit was a huge inspiration for him,' fellow MA student and friend Reva Mivasagar told me. 'And also the image of butterflies or moths being encased inside the fabric, you could see that later in his collections.'

 

For his final MA show, in March 1992, which he called Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, McQueen presented ten looks, including a black silk peplum jacket paired with a tight red skirt; a pink silk thorn print jacket with black trousers and a black bustier top; and a calico skirt covered in papier-mache magazine articles and burn marks which was twinned with a black jacket with fantastically long, pointed labels. Sewn into the designs and also encased in small pockets of Perspex attached to the fabric were locks of McQueen's own hair, sometimes strands of his pubic hair. 'It was about me giving myself to the collection,' he said later. 

 

Unknown to him, sitting in the audience that day was influential stylist Isabella Blow. 'I was sitting on the floor, I couldn't even get a seat at the St Martins show, and the pieces went past me and they moved in a way I had never seen and I wanted them,' she said later. 'The colours were very extreme. He would do a black coat, but he'd line it with human hair and it was blood red inside so it was like a body - like the flesh, with blood. And I just thought, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I just knew he had something really special, very modern, it was about sabotage and tradition.'

 

When Rebecca Barton, one of McQueen's friends on the course, heard the news that Isabella Blow wanted to make an appointment to see him, she told Lee that he was going to be famous. 'You could see in his face that he was really excited,' Rebecca told me. 'And everything changed overnight.'

 

GUEST BLOG: Horsemen of the apocalypse
10th March 2015 - 12 Midnight Smith Henderson

 

“An astonishing read. The writing is energetic and precise. The story is enthralling. I could not recommend this book more highly" – so wrote Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds, about Smith Henderson’s striking debut Fourth of July Creek.

 

The novel sees a social worker, who has been trying to assist a virtually feral 11-year-old boy discovered in the Montana wilderness, confronted by the boy’s profoundly disturbed father father, Jeremiah. But the man is a paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times and his activities spark the interest of the FBI, putting the social worker at the heart of a full-blown manhunt.

 

Here Smith recalls his own terrifying form of indoctrination the counsellors at a religious summer camp subjected him and the other children to when he was eleven, an event that was to prove an inspiration for his novel.

 

 

We were in the dozy post-lunch free-play time, that period when the camp counselors sneak off for a smoke, confident that the kids in their charge are too full of sloppy Joes to get into too much trouble.

 

It was probably the second week. I can no longer recall the church sponsor; to us, it was just “Bible camp.” Religion had come suddenly into my life, as it did for many of the other kids, when the Moral Majority led the charge of the Reagan Revolution. So there I was, somewhere in or near Bitterroot National Forest in Montana.

 

The camp was heavy on singalongs, obstacle courses and crafts. We learned how to build a fire properly. We shot arrows. We floated down the freezing creek on sun-warmed black inner tubes. We crashed into our bunks at bedtime smelling of campfire, as exhausted as Army recruits.

 

There were liberal doses of Scripture, too. But the notions of redemption, grace and original sin were too abstract for my heretofore secular 11-year-old mind. I was baptized. I prayed. I tried to speak in tongues. But the religious experience occurring everywhere around me really didn’t take. I watched horseflies turn circles in the chapel, fighting the urge to sleep.

 

That day, after lunch, a dozen riders descended into camp on horseback. I’d been around the rodeo much of my young life, but there was something about the urgency with which they galloped across the meadow that unnerved me. The band broke in two around the pond. We all stood, wondering what was going on, as they fanned out around us.

 

We saw they had rifles and wore bandannas over their faces. There were children’s screams, an awkward laugh. The riders fired into the air. The scene shook with chaos, kids scattering. A smoke bomb sailed through the sky and fell like a white pennant as the horsemen surrounded us. I dumbly realized that we were trapped.

 

A pickup and large hay trailer idled in the open meadow. Two men leapt from the truck and shouted for us to climb into the back. It remains astonishing to me how readily we obeyed.

 

We pushed toward the open trailer gate and helped one another in. But when it was my turn, I thought, Like hell. I dropped to the ground and crawled under the trailer on my forearms. I waited, expecting to be dragged out, but in the chaos no one noticed my absence. I shot out from under the pickup and broke for the trees. Then they did notice.

 

Someone hollered at me or at someone else about me, the running boy. The unmistakable sound of hoofbeats from many yards away kept me from looking back. I sprinted for the woods. It was the most exhilarating act of disobedience in my life.

 

When I hit the trees, I scampered down a bank and into a warren of brush. Moments later, a horse bounded past me. My lungs seethed. Another horse came and went. Eventually, my breath and my heartbeat began to slow. After a few minutes, I hazarded a peek at the meadow. The men lashed a tarp over the trailer full of kids, and the truck made for the road.

 

The horses returned again and again. But as my adrenaline dissipated, I became dimly cognizant of certain counselors’ voices from behind their masks. With relief and disappointment, I realized that this was a part of the camp experience, some edifying fear-mongering, like the Christian haunted house I visited the Halloween before. The world receded from high drama back into a kind of coherence.

 

These were no bandits or kidnappers. The children in the trailer were hauled up some switchbacks to a nearby vista and given a lecture on what it was like for Christians in the Communist world. How kids just like them were, even today, rounded up for re-education. Christians weren’t safe in China, the Soviet Union and maybe even here in America one day, if they weren’t vigilant. Governments, they were warned, can commit horrendous acts against their citizens.

 

I heard all this later, secondhand. Back in the woods, the counselors’ worried voices began calling for me by name. They pulled down their bandannas and said it was time to come out.

 

A vital part of me wanted the raid to be real, to spend the night or week or months in the woods, on the run. But I stood and budged out of the brush, savoring the last of my great escape, the excitement, my imaginary persecution.

 

Author photo © Nina Subin

Latest Blog
GUEST BLOG: 10 ways to identify true friends
31/03/2015

In The Faithful Couple, AD Miller explores the dark secrets that underpin a decades-old friendship. On our blog, he reveals the 10 ways to identify who's a keeper when it comes to picking friends.

GUEST BLOG: What McQueen learned at St Martins
21/03/2015

Andrew Wilson, author of new biography Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin, recalls McQueen's years at Central St Martins, former occupants of the building now home to Foyles' flagship, when his MA show took the fashion world by storm and the seeds of his partnership with the legendary Isabella Blow were sown.

GUEST BLOG: Horsemen of the apocalypse
10/03/2015

Smith Henderson's debut novel features a disturbed Montana father convinced that the End Times are coming. Here he relates his own terrifying experience he had as an 11-year-old at a religious summer camp that inspired the novel.

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