“I think I now understand why it is that the young are so very nostalgic. They have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom. For those of us who have months, years and even entire decades mouldering in the attics of our memories, nostalgia seems a curiously boastful kind of hoarding. So you had a love affair, or moved abroad, you got ill, or had a parent die – well, so did I, so did I – and more than once.” – Will Self
Putting that quote there seems more than a little unfair, but its purpose is more to draw a contrast than a criticism. The 1970s was almost ripe for plucking by the nostalgia industry in 1993, and for the remainder of the decade it went from a novelty to an all-encompassing ironic media cliché, with Noddy Holder starring in The Grimleys on TV, Peter Kay asking arenas full of people if they remember things and TV presenters who were toddlers at the time reminiscing about space hoppers and angel delight on “I love the 70s”. When I started university in 1998 I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the popular kids (yes, such a thing existed) spent their Saturday evenings wearing afro wigs and brightly coloured flares at the local shit disco 70s Night. They were all born in 1980-1981, so already their nostalgia was borrowed, filtered through parody, a hemmed-in cul-de-sac of shit irony, all signifiers that signified nothing but themselves, and closed the senses not just to the past, but also to the present and future. We didn’t get on.
I’d hate to think that Pulp played a role in this, and for the most part they didn’t, but their references to the decade, especially in music videos, were easy to shift into kitsch when filtered through even a single lens – see for example the performance by Gareth Dickinson as Jarvis on ‘Stars In Your Eyes’, where he was surrounded by pigtailed girls with clackers and a dog on wheels. Once again we can see that once art is out there in the world, it is impossible for the artist to control what is done with it, either by the public or the massed forces of light entertainment.
Inside Susan, then, is not nostalgic at all – there are no cultural references stopping it being set in the 60s or the 00s for that matter – but it captures a certain time in Jarvis’s life – those couple of years between O levels and A levels where life largely existed as a series of intervals between house parties. Much of it is unfiltered truth. There really was a girl called Caroline Lee who would pretend to be married to Jarvis, German exchange students really did jump out of the bedroom window, and the story about the ‘man who spends all day forcing felt-tip pens into people’s hands and then trying to make them pay for them’ is his own. The character of Susan herself is something of an amalgam of Jarvis’s own memories, and girls he knew at the time. While her thoughts are specific to a time and place, they are also typical of a certain type of teenager; one who finds daydreams and fantasies more interesting than everyday life, one who demonstrates little or no enthusiasm about their everyday existence, treating life decisions as trivia, or a game they can’t be bothered to play. Jarvis was one once, and so was I.
“I’d go to parties and try to cop off with girls and stuff… …I think the reason I started writing about it was that I thought I might be in danger of forgetting what it was like. Also, I liked the resilience of youth; people are always packing each other when they’re young – you’d be going out with someone and one day they’d say, ‘I’m packing yuh, yuh’re a right slag”, and nobody would think anything of it… …I liked the fact that everybody was so insensitive to each other, and quite abusive a lot of the time. It’s a sign of immaturity, I’m sure.” – Jarvis in Q, May 1994.
Susan is essentially part of this world, as much as she feels excluded from it. There’s a sense that it’s all unacceptably juvenile, that she should get away from it all, but to where? Her vision of adulthood is still unformed, and consists of being able to get into pubs and “make lots of money from charging fat old men five pounds a time to look up my skirt.” It’s an odd kind of immature cynicism, built on a foundation of frustration and loneliness. There’s never a sign of anyone else understanding her, or of her wanting to be close to anyone else for that matter. Other people being described generally as annoyances or objects of disgust. We begin with her catching a bus to school at the late hour of 10.30am and end with her getting off and walking home. That combination of desire to escape and inability to make reasonable plans could surely only be written by somebody who’s been there themself – and to that end, at the close of the story, we shift perspective to the view of a retrospective onlooker:
I suppose you think she’s just a silly girl with stupid ideas, but I remember her in those days. They talk about people with a fire within and all that stuff. Well, she had that alright – it’s just that nobody dared to jump into her fire and risk being consumed. Instead they put her in a corner and let her heat up the room, warming their hands and backsides in front of her, and then slagging her off around town.
It’s a very personal, slightly bitter reflection, projected onto another, expanded to encompass near-universality. At that age malicious gossip stands in for genuine intimacy, walls between people are too low. To genuinely affect another person is too easy – so subtle, measured relationships are impossible. All but the most callous get hurt. For many then, it’s a low point in life, albeit one that may well be fondly remembered later, when emotions are more settled and when people long to feel like they once did. That’s when nostalgia kicks in, and that’s why Inside Susan is refreshing in its lack of rose-tinted lenses.
We haven’t got to the music yet, so a few notes about that. It’s essentially a backing track, which is exactly what’s required*. On a casual listen it sounds like one of the band’s jams, but I suspect that it’s something more constructed than that. Beyond Candida’s keyboard motif it sounds like a programmed track – loops of recorded sound slotted together in the studio. There are a couple of clues that make me suspect this is the case – firstly the complete lack of a live version of the song, and secondly the way Russell’s guitar sounds like a series of freeform riffs cut up and placed at their most effective locations, often multi-tracked on top of itself, as is Jarvis’s voice. The only thing that sounds live is Nick’s drums. Anyway, it’s only a theory, but I’d like to see what other people think.
However it was constructed, it’s fairly wonderful – restrained but accomplished, together but never showy about it. There’s no chorus there, just a series of peaks and troughs – a low-key bed for the story, exactly what’s needed after the effervescence of ‘Stacks’. Jarvis plays his part by putting in a restrained performance too, only adding occasional drama on lines like “…queuing up to take me out for dinner!” It sounds effortless – a thoughtful, well-written story given time to breathe, and it’s hard to fault it in any regard.
*If this were still the 80s there would doubtlessly be some kind of effort to fit the music to the story – and the song would suffer for it.