I acquired my first stalker sometime in 1993. She was my first and has thankfully thus far been my only one. I didn't realise she was a stalker at the time, simply assuming her to be a fan of the band for which I played guitar. We were called Academy 23, and we had coagulated around the nucleus of Dave Fanning and Andy Martin, formerly of the Apostles, who had achieved minor infamy with a string of angry but tuneful albums, EPs, and cassette tapes.
Academy 23 were more or less a continuation of the Apostles, renamed after William Burroughs' essay and with a related shift of emphasis informed - so I had the impression - by Andy's desire to distance himself from the anarchopunk circles with which the Apostles had often been associated. We played a couple of gigs, recorded and released a compact disc which I didn't actually like very much, and we were interviewed in a few fanzines. I suppose I should have spotted the peculiarity of Zoe's letter being addressed directly to myself given that my home address had never appeared on any Academy 23 related material. I assume she had found it in one of my own small press comics or fanzines churned out under the banner of Runciter Corporation, yet otherwise having no direct association with Academy 23. She had done her homework.
She gave her name as Zoe Almond, and she wrote from an address in Liverpool. The letter was written in biro on one side of an A4 sheet of lined paper from a notepad. She asked me about Academy 23, about Andy, and how our music related to that of the Apostles. The Apostles had been amongst my absolute favourite bands of the previous decade, and I still rate their music very highly even today, so it was immensely exciting to have been asked to play guitar for what was in essence a continuation of that band. I understood Zoe's devotion because I shared it myself. This appeared to be my very first fan letter, so I wrote back immediately.
The second letter came by the end of the same week, longer and in more detail. Here was someone who really understood what the Apostles had been about. She explained that as a lesbian who had been more or less disowned by her own parents, Andy's music really spoke to her; and it was true that he had a real talent for communicating the frustration of the outsider, the teenage runaway, and the generally dispossessed. This was for me, and I guess many others, what had set the Apostles apart from all those other black and white fold-out sleeve bands. They were about the individual in a society out of balance rather than the then traditional sloganeering against church, state and the multinationals, and the Apostles weren't afraid of pissing people off, even those who bought their records.
Does Andy read Gay News?, Zoe asked.
It seemed like a strange question. I had no idea whether he did or not, but presumed not as he had never mentioned it.
The next letter was four pages, and I began to notice just how much of it seemed concerned with Andy. I also noticed that an oddly confrontational tone had entered her correspondence. I assumed this was simply her being slightly mad - as she admitted herself - which was hardly an unknown factor amongst those who found themselves drawn to the music of the Apostles.
You do realise that I'm not actually Andy's publicity manager, I wrote back; you might be better off asking him yourself, and like an idiot I wrote out the address of his place up in Hackney.
Her response was eight pages long, with some mumbling about how she wasn't exactly in Andy's good books, and with the tone just that little bit snottier than before. Additionally she had sent a cassette of a programme taped from Radio 4, some debate upon an assortment of gay and lesbian issues. She wanted to know what I thought of it all. Most of the letter was taken up with some sort of internal monologue relating to the aforementioned gay and lesbian issues. Being myself neither gay nor lesbian, I wondered what she thought this had to do with me, or more importantly, why I would necessarily have anything either useful or interesting to say on the subject. I didn't mind, but it really began to seem like she was wasting her time.
Unable to contribute anything of real value to our correspondence I sent her a photocopy of a nine-panel comic strip I had drawn entitled The Shockers. The story behind The Shockers was my friend - whom I will discreetly identify as Bingo - having told me of his visit to a very vaguely mutual acquaintance, an artist whom I'll identify as Roulette Gondwanaland so as to avoid granting her any needless publicity. Roulette Gondwanaland lived with her partner, Stegosaurus Dave - and yes that is his real name - and she had not seen Bingo for some time. They knew each other at college. More recently Roulette Gondwanaland had taken to publishing small press comic strips, although they weren't really strips so much as pages of lists, one example being a list of objects of such proportions as to fit comfortably inside her vagina.
Roulette Gondwanaland had taken to what might loosely be described as a swinging lifestyle, enjoying regular threesomes with Stegosaurus Dave and some other guy who was introduced as Stegosaurus Dave's boyfriend. Sometimes she herself enjoyed homosexual liasons with another female partner, although Stegosaurus Dave was not allowed to join in with this particular juxtaposition of genitalia, because that would have been just wrong. The precise nature of the juxtaposition was revealed when Roulette Gondwanaland took her leave of the meeting with Bingo, explaining, 'I'm going to meet my girlfriend now. I'm going to lick her pussy!'
I vaguely knew Roulette Gondwanaland as a figure around our shared locality, and had found her faintly irritating from afar for quite some time. Her art, and the numerous headachey events set up to promote it combined a smug quality with what looked a lot like a desperate cry for attention, and so I guess her personal life was much the same as her public life. I found it hard to avoid being both irritated and entertained by her existence, and so in The Shockers my pointedly bemused skinhead author surrogate finds himself cornered by characters who insist on regaling him with full explanations of their sexual habits in an apparent effort to inspire shock which they pass off as testimonial to the powerful currency of their own liberated outlook.
The problem with The Shockers is that it could easily be read as a prudish, even borderline homophobic effort, the sort of reactionary crap which might bring a smile to Clarkson's sausagey lips. It looks like gratuitous liberal-baiting, which wasn't really my intention. I included some text which wasn't quite the disclaimer to which it aspired, something about the sort of demonstrative sexuality expressed by persons such as Roulette Gondwanaland being some peculiar kind of fashion statement representing a stereotype, and a fairly insulting stereotype. Part of this came from having gay friends, Andy significantly amongst them, who had come to feel somewhat alienated by a society which tended to characterise them as one of just a few very limited types; but mainly it was just because Roulette Gondwanaland was inherently full of shit and sorely in need of having the piss taken out of her. I honestly couldn't have cared less about her or anyone else's sexuality, but her overbearing need for the rest of us to know all about it in such pornographic detail, and presumably to have our inner Mary Whitehouses quaking in their boots, demarcated her as being a fucking twat and therefore ripe for satire.
The Shockers maybe wasn't a great cartoon, but then it still makes me laugh. Even now, I still can't quite unscramble what it actually says - whether or not it constitutes my Richard Littlejohn moment - and I had no better idea of how it came across or whether it worked as intended at the time. Andy thought it was hilarious, but then his standard regarding humour seems to work in terms of how much the joke upsets anyone he doesn't like. Zoe Almond of Liverpool had clearly spent a great deal of time mulling over an assortment of gay and lesbian issues, so I sent her a copy hoping her response would be something along the lines of yes, this is spot on or I can definitely see what you're getting at here. Thank you for understanding how difficult it is being gay.
The next letter contained eight ninety-minute tapes of debate upon an assortment of gay and lesbian issues as originally broadcast on Radio 4, and another eight page letter. She was very disappointed that I had not yet returned the first tape she had kindly sent to me - the tape I hadn't actually requested - and she wanted this latest bunch back within the week. Also, she hadn't enjoyed The Shockers at all.
Your pitiful, barely literate cartoon, she explained, has now caused serious damage to the lives of many of my friends, before descending into another lengthy rant I couldn't quite follow eventually concluding in rhetorical and somewhat digressive fashion with questions of just who Andy Martin thinks he is.
I tried to envision how my pitiful, barely literate cartoon could have now caused serious damage to the lives of many of Zoe's friends given that it had never been printed anywhere, existed only as a couple of photocopies, and wasn't actually a billboard or a television broadcast blaming one entire section of society for all the woes of another. I could see how it might piss somebody off, particularly somebody lacking a sense of humour - which was, I suppose, the point - but I couldn't see how it could now cause serious damage to anyone's life. This worried me.
I'd spoken to Andy a couple of times on the phone since the first of Zoe's letters, but each time I had forgotten to mention our newest fan, or to ask whether he read Gay News. This time when he called, I was a little phased by this most recent development.
'Oh God,' he said. 'Is it from an address in Liverpool?'
'Yes, it is,' I confirmed, then recalling Zoe admitting to not exactly being in Andy's good books. 'You know her?'
'Not personally. Listen - whatever you do, don't reply. Stuff everything back in the envelope and mark it name not known and return to sender.'
'You didn't reply, did you?'
I was fairly sure of the fact that I had done so being implicit in what I'd already told him, but maybe he was in shock. 'Well now that you mention it, I sort of did - yes.'
'Is it bad?'
'I'm afraid it's very, very bad, Lawrence, but at least you haven't given them my new address, so they probably think I still live in Brougham Road. At least there's that.'
I set him right about this specific misreading of the situation, and when the groaning and gnashing of teeth eventually subsided, he went into detail. Zoe - also known as Zurina - was one of two girls, believed to be sisters, who spent their days winding up members of punk bands with series of fan letters becoming progressively more abusive in tone as the correspondence develops. Apparently they had done the same to members of Blaggers ITA and a few of the other groups who were around at the time; and the consensus was that the Almond sisters were probably psychotic - trolls, in internet terms, but trolls before there was any worldwide web upon which to sail their disharmonious vessels. They had already targeted Pete, our drummer, but without much luck as he had other things to do besides responding to fanmail, or what attempted to pass itself off as fanmail.
I duly stuffed all of Zoe's letters and tapes back into the envelope in which the most recent missive had arrived, sealed it up, and stuck it back in the post marked return to sender. I added a note stating that being a postman I had consulted my manager at work regarding the legality of abusive mail - as indeed I had done - and Royal Mail would be quite happy to prosecute should any more of this shit arrive at my house. Amazingly, it did the trick. I never heard from Zoe Almond ever again.
About a month later, Andy had a mysterious caller, a gruff and unfamiliar female voice with a Liverpudlian accent heard over the speaker system of the entry phone at his tower block. He didn't answer and the caller went away, never to be heard from again. He later admitted that he'd indulged in quite a lot of swearing that afternoon, and had taken my name in vain on several occasions.
I never published The Shockers, and eventually rewrote it as a short science-fiction story, taking greater care to avoid inclusion of any sentiment which could be read as the sort of thing which might invite a rousing here here from passing Daily Mail subscribers. The cartoon strip still makes me laugh, but equally it feels like a guilty and uncomfortable secret. Drawing The Shockers was not really a deed to be proud of, but the time was at least better spent than that of Zoe - or whatever her real name was - waging her cranky, pointless campaigns against people in bands which no fucker has heard of.