Despite all the years I’ve spent in London, I still approach every book that tells tales of its modern-day life with a certain wonder: the effect of growing up in a small town so devoid of charm, no one ever even thought of putting it on a postcard.
This sense of marvel led me to pick up Kate Tempest’s debut novel The Bricks That Built The Houses at my local library three years ago; it proved, not for the first or last time, an instinct worth trusting. It was only after finishing the book that I learnt Kate Tempest has a track record as musician, spoken word artist and prize-winning poet — and, most impressive of all, that The Bricks That Built The Houses is a companion piece to her 2014 rap album Everybody Down. The characters are lifted from the songs and given paragraphs’ worth of room to grow; their world unfolds through scenes that read like dazzling lyrics. This is the kind of fiction only a poet could write, and if you give Everybody Down a listen, you’ll find yourself wondering where the musician ends and the skillful prose writer begins to manifest.
Given how far out of my music comfort zone rap lies, I’m thankful to The Bricks That Built The Houses for bringing me to Everybody Down, and therefore to “The Beigeness”: a song I wouldn’t have found otherwise, that seems made for me to love regardless. Among the hundreds of tunes I have at my fingertips on the days I need to rise above London’s frenzy, this is the one I turn to when I want to feel the city run through my veins. London — or at least one of its many facets — is precisely what Everybody Down is born from, and you don’t need to have been around as long as I have to know that the word “beigeness” hints at more than the hue of the Thames at high tide.
Tempest fires off words at high speed to the sound of an implacable beat; voice and music seem to go their own way, playing to their own agenda — and yet, a sort of harmony emerges. Stick with the song long enough to follow the narrative, and you’ll begin to see vivid pictures that break the beigeness of modern life: people with stories that reveal themselves in the clothes they wear, the sights and sounds they react to, the poses they strike; hands stretching out to make a connection in a place where it’s far easier to find elbows shoving you out of the way; love and empathy that are often spoken too quickly, or not at all. And behind all this, sparks of hope: the crooked, perhaps ill-advised kind, but hope nonetheless.
(Song recommendation by Iris)