The Freebie is the first story in the collection Shorts and is my first published-and-paid-for piece of fiction. It is about Billy Freeb, a wannabe musician, getting his shot at his moment of fame.
The story came to me one idle day in the early 1990s while I was washing dishes. I had been reading the NME (or New Musical Express for you non-musical types) and in particular an interview with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins was on my mind. I don’t remember what it was about Corgan’s interview — perhaps the earnestness and the subtly codified postures and language of ego — but it struck me then that the interviews and the articles in the music press might be the real objective of making music, not the tunes; that you wrote the songs and did the gigs in order to get the interviews, and that was what it was all about.
If I probe this thought it turns out to be a pretty unoriginal comment on celebrity and fame, but happily I didn’t pick at it. So my thinking took the next pretentious step and I sat down to write a dour little story about conceptual art that would have a po-faced and utterly dull interview at its heart, an interview with people who would no doubt be wearing black turtle neck sweaters and who may have been smoking Gitanes.
However, when I got down to it, the first image that came to mind was the hero Billy’s lopsided little squat in Stoke Newington (a diverse but sort of gentrified part of north London for you non-Stokey folk), and of him waiting by the phone for fame to come to him rather than going out to find it — and the story went off on its own way from there, and jolly lucky too, because the original I had in mind would have been unbearably dull.
The London I squatted during the eighties was full of musical wannabes and conceptual dilettantes and I was probably both, so there was plenty of material to draw on. And that was the age of the yuppie and the stock market crash of 1987; Thatcher, Reagan, the creed of Monetarism and I knew plenty of people in the money world too. From popular music it is only a short step to consumerism and facile disposable products, vapid branding, artificial value and stock markets and the rest of it, and from there in my imagination to the non-product, a purely notional commodity that carries whatever value we want to move around at any moment.
Eh? I thought this was a story about musical wannabes. Well, yes it is, but part of the fun for me in writing The Freebie was discovering that with the odd well-placed word or sentence you can make a story look beyond its own world; you can bring in whole extra dimensions of association and meaning with very little effort.
I have always been curious about whether readers have picked up on these associations. No one has ever made any comments. For me, the reader of The Freebie is invited to draw a connection between Billy’s musical compositions through all the real-world products of dubious use or social value (pretty well everything in the shops) right to internationally traded stocks and shares. See the almost off-hand remark about (Billy’s pal) Lucien Savage’s trade: the stocks he traded are “his cathode blips, his abstracts, his non-products; like an air traffic controller trading radar contacts.” Yes, and that little parenthetical remark in the story opens a window on how we produce, trade and consume under advanced capitalism.
I also tried to reinforce this idea with the motif of ‘non-’, which pops up all over. For example, “Billy […] laboriously explained that the cat he did not have had mistaken the big dog-eared memo pad on which he had not written the name and address of the place they were to meet for the big dog-eared Persian that had never lived next door — on which Billy’s cat would have certainly had a crush had they both existed …” (I’m also chuffed that I managed to use the descriptor ‘dog-eared’ twice in a sentence about cats.)
And then there is the name of the story, which gives Billy his family name: something for nothing — like Billy’s musical ambitions, like non-products, like the stock market. Notice that Billy has not acquired anything he has: the journalist calls him, not the other way round; his parents got his squat for him; he looks forward to a free lunch and free booze, and so on.
The Freebie was published in The London Magazine in July 2002, the second issue of its re-launch that year. The London Magazine (TLM) is a great place to first place a story. It goes back to the eighteenth century, has published the work of some very notable names, and the issue that included my story carried some work by Ben Okri.
I had actually forgotten I submitted the story to this magazine. After The Freebie went off in its big brown envelope I discovered that the magazine’s long-time and much respected editor Alan Ross had died and the magazine had ceased publication. This was utterly typical of my luck, I thought with appalling self pity and overlooking the death of a person, and forgot about it. Months later I got home from work to an email from TLM’s new editor Sebastian Barker saying that he very much liked The Freebie and was it OK if he used it? So I said no — OK, I said PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZ. I pounded my feet of the floor and woo hoo-ed and hullaballoo-ed in jubilation and sprinted out the house to buy a celebratory bottle of wine and drank the whole thing without sharing with anyone.
According to Wikipedia, TLM’s notable contributors include: W. H. Auden, Frank Auerbach, Louis de Bernières, Bill Brandt, William S. Burroughs, Roy Campbell, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Cary, Charles Causley, John Clare, Hartley Coleridge, Allan Cunningham, Odysseus Elytis, Gavin Ewart, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Roy Fuller, W. S. Graham, Nadine Gordimer, Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, Tony Harrison, William Hazlitt, Thomas Hood, Ted Hughes, Leigh Hunt, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, John Keats, Charles Lamb, Laurie Lee, Jack London, Louis MacNeice, Mary Russell Mitford, Paul Muldoon, Les Murray, Ben Okri, Harold Pinter, Sylvia Plath, Thomas de Quincey, Ethel Rolt Wheeler, Alan Ross, Richard Savage, John Scott, Iain Sinclair, Derek Walcott, Evelyn Waugh and William Wordsworth.
Yes, I have been included in a mag that published William S Burroughs, who I thought I was channeling when I embarked on the first draft of Weed (but emphatically not the later drafts).
Eventually, I submitted some more work to TLM and Sebastian Barker took the trouble to write by hand a note telling me it was “horrible”. He didn’t use it. And you are not seeing it.
OK. I have written way too much about The Freebie here. You’ll be so sick to death of hearing about it, you won’t want to read it. I’m off to blag a free drink.