Alex James: The Great Escape

'It's much harder than you think to do nothing'
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The Independent Online

Might go to the beach. Might go up the mountain. Might just stay right here under the old pear tree. The sky is all blue and infinite, there are many greens and lots of nothing for miles around. Real life is like a distant ache that flares up now and again, but mainly we hide out in a creaky old farmhouse, here in Oregon. You can tell a lot about a place by its bugs and beetles. The ones here are robust and benign-looking. There are also a lot of hummingbirds and the usual unfamiliar quacks, cheeps and squeaking that you get on holiday.

Might go to the beach. Might go up the mountain. Might just stay right here under the old pear tree. The sky is all blue and infinite, there are many greens and lots of nothing for miles around. Real life is like a distant ache that flares up now and again, but mainly we hide out in a creaky old farmhouse, here in Oregon. You can tell a lot about a place by its bugs and beetles. The ones here are robust and benign-looking. There are also a lot of hummingbirds and the usual unfamiliar quacks, cheeps and squeaking that you get on holiday.

Oregon really is somewhere else altogether. It's like they've got a bigger train set than the one we're using. Vast. Big mountains, big ocean, big trees. Very wholesome. From the top of my mountain, everything looks easy. The view through the branches of the pear tree is like an artist's impression of a perfect place. Definitely want to do some art. Might make a film; invent new kinds of cheese; go looking for meteorites in Antarctica; make a sundial out of those old girders; design a gyroscopic clock. Easy-peasy. I'll just have another nap...

It's much harder than you think to do nothing, and much, much more important. While doing nothing I like to play the guitar. This was my holiday plan. The guitar got left behind before we started counting the bags. It's always good going to guitar shops in America, where guitars seem to be much more popular than guns. A company called Martin produced its first guitars around 1850, and you occasionally see really old ones for sale. Nowadays, like with new cars, you can't really buy a crap one. For 80 quid you can get something that plays just fine. (There really ain't much difference between the noise an 80-quid guitar makes and that of an £800 one.) I use guitars up like Biros.

I was poking around Norman's Rare Guitars in the valley part of LA recently, when a mandolin caught my eye. I took it off its perch and, noting it didn't seem to weigh anything, gave it a twang. I'd never heard anything like it. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed; there was some beefcake punching The Beatles out of an out-of-tune Stratocaster, to whom everyone was listening, rapt. But nobody seemed to notice the fat sound coming out of the tiny, old mandolin - nobody except me. The instrument was probably about a hundred years old - it still tuned like a violin, but had to be held like a guitar, kind of a missing link - and it was a masterpiece, no doubt about it. The weird non-Euclidean geometry of the body and the four pairs of strings produced an aching, lamenting, magical sound that I knew had to be mine. Norman wanted a thousand bucks.

"What band you with?" he asked.

"Blur" I said, bashfully.

"Bluer! Cooool," he said. "Do you have, like, a rekurd deal?"

A mere thou for a Strad of a mandolin. That's got to be a record deal.

Ironically, small-town America is the easiest place for anybody English to find out how it feels to be a rock star. You just go to the supermarket and say something like, "Cheers, mate, got any Wotnots?" in a fairly loud voice, and everyone starts staring at you, and smiling, and asking you questions about what you're up to.

But I have to wilfully resist going to the shops - they're too clever at persuading you to get more stuff here. It's currently berry season and, just driving around, you're confronted with roadside berry propaganda: marionberries, they got, and loganberries and boysenberries, and all kinds of others, playing on my mind as I grow hungry. Resistance is ultimately futile, but for now, and as long as possible, sweet nothing to the sound of the mandolin. It's the berries.

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